ASJ highlights some of our favorite seasonal brews
By Derrick Peterman
Winter is a time of many traditions. One of my favorite winter traditions is sampling all of the wonderful seasonal beers so many California breweries release this time of year. Winter Seasonals provide brewers the freedom to experiment with different ingredients, unlike beer styles such as IPAs or Hefeweizens, which involve long established brewing techniques and flavor profiles.
Many brewers infuse species such as nutmeg, ginger, vanilla, cinnamon, cocoa, and orange peel associated with the holidays in their winter seasonals. In addition, they also tend to use more heavily roasted malts which impart flavors of toasted bread, caramel, coffee and chocolate that we associate with the holidays. The hop content is usually kept low so as not to compete too strongly with the other flavors.
While holiday beers have a history dating back centuries to many of Europe’s brewing regions, in the United States this tradition largely began right here in California. San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing released their Christmas Ale in 1975 to great success, and Anchor subsequently released one every year, slightly tweaking the recipe each year. For me, each year’s version of Anchor Brewing Holiday Ale is like opening a
Christmas present. You’re not exactly sure what you’re going to get, but you know it’s going to be good. As many new breweries came on board in the 80’s, they adapted Anchor’s winter tradition and now most craft breweries offer a winter seasonal.
Below is a list of some of my favorite winter seasonal beers that are widely available in California, usually from November through February. I enjoy these beers after running California’s trails and I think you’ll enjoy them too. While I highly recommend all the beers on this list, it’s definitely worth your while to seek out what specialties your local brewery or brewpub has to offer as well.
The brewery is a little coy about what they use in this one, citing only “spices and cocoa nibs” as special ingredients on their website. I’m detecting nutmeg, and maybe cinnamon? Ginger? Whatever they use, it gives the beer an aromatic quality to the roasted malts. It’s another example of 21st Amendment’s talent for creating complex, flavorful, yet highly drinkable beers.
2012 Christmas Ale
This year’s version of the one that started it all, the highly roasted malts meld smoothly with flavors of molasses and ginger. You could call it a liquid ginger snap. Once again, Anchor delivers for the holidays.
Marin Brewing (Larkspur)
Marin Brewing uses lighter Pale, Wheat, Caramalt, and Munich malts with the additions of cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, orange peel and vanilla extract. Despite the name, the hop presence is low and the spices really shine through the rich malt background.
Anderson Valley Brewing
The caramel flavors really pop from this offering from Anderson Valley, which is basically a maltier version of their excellent Summer Solstice summer seasonal. Hints of vanilla and cinnamon also round out this rich, smooth tasting brew.
Like virtually every Lagunitas beer, there’s a story behind it. Back in 1997, their brewer set out to make their traditional Barleywine, but realized he made a mistake and added too little malt into the brew kettle. All hands at the brewery were dispatched to supermarkets across Petaluma to return back with as much brown sugar they could find in the next hour to rescue the batch. The result was a surprisingly good barleywine, where the brown sugar combined seamlessly with the caramel malt and a strong dose of hops. Despite all the strong flavors, it’s very smooth and drinkable. At 9.9% alcohol by volume, you’ll want to make sure you’re well hydrated before sipping this one.
Lost Coast Brewery
Nothin’ fancy about this well executed brown ale, with plenty of roasty, chocolate flavors and a lightly spicy hop finish. Lost Coast doesn’t add any special spices to their winter seasonal, which would only clutter its wonderful simplicity.
Snow Cap Winter Warmer
Pyramid Brewing (Berkeley)
Pyramid uses a hefty dose of darkly roasted malts to give this one chocolaty, caramel flavors. It’s nicely balanced with generous amounts of hops imparting herbal flavors, giving this one a savory holiday vibe.
Sierra Nevada (Chico)
This is the winter seasonal for hop heads. You can enjoy this beer simply by inhaling all the wonderful floral hop aromas. Taste it, and the underlying toasted malt is no match for all the intense floral hop flavors. It’s a totally unbalanced beer, in a good way.