It is a rare occasion when I get the opportunity to talk about winter seasonals in the desert. Yes, we have our winter, but it’s obviously mild relative to almost anywhere else in the country. But as I sat down to write this, I was eyeing a forecast that includes lows awfully close to freezing—so why not strike while the iron is cold and dig into the subject of “winter warmers”?
This tradition of the warmer likely originates from the Scandinavian Jul (aka Yule) celebrations. For the solstice, they would brew strong ale, feast on meat and make offerings to the gods for the upcoming spring. The English adopted the idea of making a beer for Christmastime. Traditionally referred to as a wassail in England, the winter ale would often be a very strong, malty, full-bodied beer which often included flavors common to English desserts such as figs, molasses, toffee, prunes, etc. After many years, the winter warmer became influential enough to spread to the United States, where the first “craft brewers” would do their versions of the style.
Enough history … it’s time to drink.
For my money, the alpha and omega of this genre is Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale. It’s not spiced and has a bunch of wintery adjuncts thrown in; it’s malty luxury with a helping of Golding and Fuggles hops (the latter being a favorite hop name of mine). Reminiscent of English dessert flavors, it’s a liquid version of a lovely fruitcake. It’s made all the better due to its availability locally: You can still find it in many places that carry even a little more beer variety than a gas station. I don’t think I’ve failed to pick up at least one bottle of this classic for the past two decades—and I hope the tradition can continue.
Trappist monks in Belgium also have a tradition of adding spices and/or fruits to a dark ale for the Christmas season. Like other Belgian abbey styles, they are dangerously easy to drink, even at an alcohol by volume of 10-12%. St. Bernardus Christmas and Delirium Noel are two prime, readily available examples. I recently saw a marked-down price on four-packs of the St. Bernardus at Total Wine and More, so there may still time for people like me who leave the tree up just a bit too long. You might be able to find American versions of this style—but good luck to you. Belgian styles seem to have largely gone out of favor, and I couldn’t be sadder about it. Luckily, there is a pipeline of Belgian ales that make it to the shelves, and most keep well due to a bit of refermentation inside the bottle (hence the corks and cages on many of the bottles). If the bottle is corked and caged, in all likelihood, that beer is fine. Sometimes, it’s even better than it would have been fresh.
Now that we’ve covered the Old World, let’s move on to the New and discuss winter seasonals made by American breweries. There are two that come to mind that were around long before I was of drinking age: Anchor Brewing’s Christmas Ale, and Sierra Nevada Brewing’s Bigfoot. The two are not similar; Anchor’s is a spiced winter warmer first made in 1975, and Sierra Nevada’s is what is now classified as an American barleywine. The former is a beer you would sit and have by the fire; the latter is what you’d have before you go to sleep.
Some breweries have beers they brew every year for winter, while many will make different beers as they see fit. Deschutes Brewing has their Jubelale—and this year’s is incredible. It’s a winter warmer with all the rich, malty flavor of an English winter seasonal, but with Pacific Northwest levels of hops. Everything is balanced, and the overall flavor experience is intense.
Another favorite of this season for me that can still be found on shelves is Santa’s Private Reserve from Rogue Ales. Rogue is another elder in craft brewing, and I must admit that I don’t check in with them as often as I used to. That may be to my detriment, because Santa’s Private Reserve is an excellent stout made with tangerine, chocolate and tahini. Tahini is a Middle Eastern sauce made with ground, toasted sesame seeds; it’s kind of a left-field choice here, but it just works. And thankfully, the stout isn’t some overly sweet behemoth; it’s a well-balanced beer with just the right amount of roast to counter the adjuncts.
Brewery X made a white chocolate and peppermint stout called Bark Griswold that I still see on the shelves at Trader Joe’s in Palm Desert. This was also nicely balanced, so as not to be all about the adjuncts: You can still tell it’s a stout underneath. Both the Rogue and Brewery X beers clock in at 6.5% ABV—enough to warm you up a little, but not enough to put you to bed.
There are many other winter beers out there for you to explore. I can only cover so much here when it comes to any topic, but before I leave you to the task of finding these beers, I’ll briefly mention a few other beers that I reach for every year. Fremont Brewing has their Winter Ale, another winter warmer, and everything Fremont does is good. Everything. Trader Joe’s has a Vintage Ale that is brewed by Unibroue in Quebec. Unibroue makes some of the most authentic Belgian styles in North America, and the Vintage Ale is no different; it’s a spiced Belgian dark strong ale that drinks very easily for its strength.
Now the only thing left for you to do is find and enjoy these and other beers for the season. Is this homework? Yes—but it’s the best homework assignment you’ve likely ever received. Go forth and discover!