This season is a feast for the senses.
There’s the smell of pies baking. The sound of hearty laughter and a crackling fire. The feel of friends hugging and the taste of toasts to good cheer and a new year.
For brewers, capturing the essence of the season — the icy grip of winter as well as the bright lights of the holidays — is a challenge and an opportunity.
Some take a spicy route, brewing with ingredients you might find in a fruitcake recipe. Others play off traditional concoctions such as wassail. And the winter weather begs for belly-warming beverages that keep the chill at bay.
Some play off the “naughty or nice” theme with a sense of humor for those who have drifted to the dark side. One British brewer offers Lump of Coal stout, Bad Elf IPA, Seriously Bad Elf and Insanely Bad Elf, both English strong ales.
For my money, it’s hard to beat another errant elf, this from Tröegs Brewing Co. in Hershey, Pa. Mad Elf is a ruby-red Belgian strong ale that uses cherries and honey combined with noble hops (Saaz and Hallertau) and three malts (including chocolate), fermented with Belgian yeast. My research assistants remarked on the spicy and fruity flavors, particularly the cherry. Don’t fear the huge 11 percent alcohol by volume; this is a smooth beer.
On the nice side, St. Bernardus Christmas Ale from Brouwerij St. Bernardus in Belgium is like a bear hug from an old friend. It wraps you in a warm embrace of dark malts, kisses with a creamy head and leaves you tingling with its 10 percent ABV.
Locally, Hardywood Park’s Gingerbread Stout is not to be missed. Beer Advocate magazine gave it a rare perfect score of 100, saying it “tastes like freagin’ Christmas in a bottle.” The ginger, fresh and local, is perfectly balanced in this imperial milk stout. The unveiling of its bourbon-barrel version Dec. 8 at the Holiday Cheer and Beer Classic drew long lines, and the anticipation was not unrewarded. The bourbon-barrel aging raises the bar on the stout’s complexity, and with 55 International Bitterness Units, there’s a welcome dryness in the finish.
The Holiday Classic also featured the debut of Midnight Brewery’s Christmas at Midnight Spiced Ale. Brewer Trae Cairns described it as an English mild ale with some nutmeg, cinnamon and other Christmas spices, plus a nice vanilla presence.
“We should’ve called it OMG, based on some people’s reactions,” Cairns said.
You can continue celebrating the season with holiday brews aplenty from Anchor, Rogue, Sierra Nevada, Bell’s, Goose Island and more. Bell’s Christmas Ale, an amber Scottish ale, is notably mellow, relying strictly on malts rather than spices to achieve a toffee-caramel undertone.
Starr Hill also steers clear of the spice road with The Gift, a winter bock (technically a hellerbock, “helles” meaning “light”). This golden lager has a honey sweetness balanced by moderate hopping (at 25 IBUs, certainly not a brew for hop-heads or mad elves).
Once the holidays fade, winter remains, and where would we be without beer to get us to spring? Harpoon, Clipper City, New Belgium, Anderson Valley, Samuel Adams, Leinenkugel and others offer options that stack up like a snowdrift.
As a category, seasonals — Maibocks in the spring, Oktoberfests in the fall, barleywines in the winter, for example — make up about 20 percent of the styles cranked out by craft brewers, says Spencer Powlison, marketing coordinator for the Brewers Association based in Colorado. And the volume is growing.
That tracks with what Mark Thompson, founder and master brewer of Starr Hill in Charlottesville, has experienced. “Seasonals are about the biggest bucket of craft brewing, year in and year out.” Fall seasonals are most popular, with holiday and winter beers in second, he says. An interesting development, he added, is that some styles are losing their seasonality because brewers rush to get them on the market in advance of the actual season, and some styles traditionally associated with particular times of the year are being offered in different months or year-round.
Legend Brewing Co. keeps its eye on the snowball with Winter White Ale, a witbier with plenty of wheat in the grain bill. Belgian yeast adds a spicy, fruity quality (cloves and bananas), and crushed coriander and dried orange peel expand the complexity. Legend’s Barleywine also is a formidable option; barleywines are perfect, with their high ABV, for letting your body melt into a puddle of warmth inside a comforter.
More winter selections? How about Long Winter’s Nap, one of the Barrel House brews produced at Blue Mountain’s Arrington facility. I can attest to the snooze-enhancing quotient of this blonde triple bock, particularly when paired with a second helping of mince pie.
Two more Virginia beers of note: The Winter Scotch Ale by St. George Brewing Co. in Hampton has a wonderful smoky peat quality in its 85-shilling ale. It’s not for everybody, but it begs for a spot by the fireplace on a blustery evening.
And Devils Backbone of Nelson County graced the Holiday Classic with Azrael, a Belgian strong golden ale. It tastes great but is named after the Angel of Death and is from a brewery with “devil” in the name.
I would call that nicely naughty.
More reading: Richmond’s Year of the Beer
Anybody out there drink more than two of these at a sitting? Just asking
Tröegs Brewing Co. Mad Elf is good for one per sitting, and that at once-per-year, IMOH. Not a favorite, but good every so often. St George Winter Scotch Ale looks interesting to me, but is not available in this section (SW) of Virginia that I have seen. Shall keep my eye open for it.