Winter Beer Guide: Gather ‘round the fireplace and celebrate the season with a perfect pour

Winter Beer Guide
Winter beer styles will keep you feeling cozy throughout the cold winter months. — photo by Rachel Jessen

Much like bears in a den, my pilsner glasses are overwintering in the cabinet above my fridge. I won’t be using them much because winter is the season for opaque stouts and dark, velvety Belgian ales. Of course, beer lovers are free to drink whatever, whenever, regardless of the season, but there are a number of beer styles that befit the gray, cold winter months, a time when Daryl “Woody” Woodson, owner of the Sanctuary Pub, says we naturally start craving hearty, high-calorie food and drink. “You want something that fills heavier and provides more sustenance,” he says.

Whether brewed exclusively for the holidays, made to complement our palate’s seasonal shift or just ideal for cold weather, the delicious beer styles listed in this guide will keep you nourished and warm all winter long.

Porter and Stout

There is much debate about the difference between the two heavy-hitters, porters and stouts—and if there even is a difference. I think there is, but the two styles are so intertwined, one cannot be understood without the other.

Porter is an enigma: Everyone seems to have their own opinion about what it is exactly. According to Woodson, the difference between porters and stouts can be minimal, and beer style guides often list similar characteristics for both. Woodson says the current perception is that porters are sweeter than stouts—notes of caramel and toffee tend to be much more prominent, and they don’t exhibit strong roasted characteristics. To me, a proper porter is like a very dark, toasty brown ale. Stouts, in my opinion, are stout: strong and thick. A good stout should be opaque black in color and feature dark chocolate, molasses, dark fruits, bold roasted bitterness reminiscent of espresso and a thick, velvety body.

Of course, not all stouts fit that mold and there are many porters that are “stouter” than some stouts, not to mention the variations on each—Baltic porter, milk stout, etc. Confusing, huh? But regardless of the name and style, porters and stouts are delicious dark ales and a pint of either would be a delightful complement to a rich, chocolaty holiday dessert.

Recommendations: Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout; Millstream Back Road Stout; Great River Redband Stout; Lost Cost 8 Ball Stout; North Coast Old Rasputin; Fuller’s London Porter.

Barley Wine

Break out the snifter and take a seat by a crackling fire! Barley wines are intense, warming and complex beers meant to be sipped and contemplated. Though many American-style barley wines are bombastically hoppy, the more balanced versions will feature caramel, toffee, fruit, citrus and pleasant amounts of spice. British-style versions are mostly malt-driven, and all barley wines have high alcohol by volume (ABV), usually nine percent and above. Recently, many American breweries have been releasing barrel-aged versions of their barley wines, which tend to be smoother from aging and exhibit characteristics imparted by the wood.

Recommendations: Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale and Anchor Old Foghorn.

The Belgians

Strong Dark Ale, Dubbel, Tripel and Quadruple

Superlatives often fail when describing Belgian ales—delicious and delicate medleys of fruit, malt and spice. These beers have higher ABV, which can be extra warming for drinkers, and they pair well with rich holiday foods—particularly a Thanksgiving turkey.

Strong dark ales—a Belgian beer style that includes the St. Bernardus Christmas Ale—are bready and feature a lot of dark fruit like fig, grape, plum, a foundation of caramel and sharp spice, including black pepper and clove. Dubbels and quadruples are similar to strong dark ales, but with more cherry, red apple and dried fruits like prune and raisin. Dubbels are distinguished by toasted malts and notes of caramel, toffee, brown sugar and molasses. Tripels tend to be lighter in color and much zestier. Bready and loaded with yeast spice and perhaps a little funk, this style can offer notes of orange, lemon, banana, apple, bubblegum and black pepper.

Recommendations: Maredsous Abbey Brune 8, Ommegang Three Philosophers, La Trappe Quadruple, North Coast Brother Thelonious, Unibroue’s La Fin du Monde and Trois Pistoles.

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The Other Europeans

Weizenbock, Rauchbier and Scottish Ales

To me, weizenbock is wheat beer for winter. With a darker aroma and flavor akin to dunkel weizen (toasted malts, caramel, toffee and dark fruits), weizenbocks also offer apple, banana, clove, black pepper and maybe a little bubblegum. Setting this style apart from tamer wheat beers is the higher ABV, which gives the beer a doppelbock-like edge ideal for cold winter days.

German for “smoked beer,” rauchbier is brewed with (you guessed it) smoked malts, resulting in an often-intense smokiness reminiscent of a campfire or burning pile of leaves. While this style would pair well with hearty, smoked meats, it is best on its own, post-meal. The Aecht Schlenkerla line of rauchbiers, including the awe-inspiring Märzen, are the only worthwhile rauchbiers. Märzen smells and tastes like thick-cut, peppery bacon or ham, while Aecht Schlenkerla Eiche, the doppelbock version, tastes like sausage.

Though kilts are less than ideal for Iowa winters, another isle import—Scottish ales—are perfect. Thick, malty and sometimes reminiscent of Scotch whisky, they often exhibit caramel, toffee, cocoa, brown sugar, fruits and a smoky, Scotch-like character suggestive of peat.

Recommendations: Schneider Aventinus, Weihenstephaner Vitus, Millstream Weizenbock, Aecht Schlenkerla line of rauchbiers, Brau Brothers Bancreagie Peated Scotch Ale, Belhaven Scottish Ale and Founders’ Dirty Bastard.

Holiday and Winter Releases

For Woodson, the winter holidays would not be complete without the festive and often-spicy ales released at the end of the year. The most notable holiday release is Anchor Brewing’s annual Christmas Ale. The recipe changes each year and the ingredients are top secret. (Along with a different recipe, each edition of Christmas Ale features its own distinct, hand-drawn design.) In some years the beer is mild and malty, and in others it is packed with so much pine, spruce and juniper it is like a bottled Christmas wreath.

Schell’s seasonal release, Snowstorm, also changes every year, though the Minnesota brewery is less secretive about its style and ingredients. This year the beer is a “Belgian Style Golden Ale,” and according to the Schell’s website it features chamomile and coriander for “soothing herbal notes.”

While Anchor and Schell’s always surprise beer drinkers with something different, other breweries release high-quality classics that consumers look forward to year after year. Both Breckenridge Brewery’s Christmas Ale and Sierra Nevada’s Celebration feature a delicious balance of malt, spice and invigorating hop citrus. And the Norwegian brewery Nøgne Ø’s seasonal beers—Winter Ale and Peculiar Yule—offer lots of herbs and spice alongside malty notes of caramel and chocolate.

Woodson observes that the colder months and approaching winter means wearing lots of clothes — so who cares about carbohydrates? The season of sweatshirts is the perfect time to indulge in the comfort of these heavy, warming beers. Cheers!

Casey Wagner lives in Iowa City.

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