Shake Off the Chill with These Winter Warmers and Seasonal Beers

When I was a child, my grandmother would often sneak a nip of Benedictine & Brandy or a tipple of whiskey to chase away the winter chill. While beer is more often associated with backyard barbecues and summer refreshment, many today are turning to the warming effects of microbrewed beers during the colder months.

And for good reason.

A good winter warmer hugs you like a holiday sweater and comforts with a blanket of rich malty flavors. Many winter seasonal brews are even spiced with cloves and nutmeg similar to eggnog or spiced rum punch. While others are spiced with extra amounts of that quintessential beer spice, hops.

There are almost as many variations of the winter warmer as there are breweries. Winter seasonal brews range in color from brown to red, to dark black. Though, they are typically less roasted than a stout or porter. Some are incredibly heady and full-bodied barleywines with as much alcohol as a table wine. While others are toasty and refreshing, with more typical alcohol levels.

Each brewery puts their own creative twist on the winter seasonal brew, providing a bit of fun for the adventurous imbiber and avid beer drinker, making them perfect gifts for stocking-stuffers, housewarming gifts, and dinner parties.

The micro-brew industry grew a whopping 11 percent in 2010–as overall beer consumption fell. More than 1,750 breweries operated across the United States last year–the most since the late 1800s. And most of them are now brewing some sort of Winter Warmer, Christmas Ale, or winter seasonal brew.

Here are a few of the best winter seasonal beers:

Anchor “Our Special Old Ale” 2011 (Christmas Ale), San Francisco, CA, 5.5% ABV
Available in both magnums and six packs. This malty and creamy specialty ale has been brewed for almost the last 40 years. Each release, the brewery uses a different recipe–hoping to entice collectors to lay down a few magnums. Every year the beer is heavily spice laden. Often with cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and ginger flavors.

Ninkasi Sleigh’r Eugene, OR, 7.2% ABV
Taking the font from the heavy metal band Slayer, this altbier packs in layers of double bass drum pedal malts with high notes of thrasher guitar solo hops. Making for a surprisingly fresh, balanced, and pleasant brew.

Great Lakes Christmas Ale Cleveland, OH, 7.5% ABV
Whoever says nothing good ever came out of Ohio (i.e. Presidents) has never tried the beers of the Great Lakes Brewing Company. Not only are they one of the finest breweries in the U.S., but they also produce an exemplary Christmas Ale chock full of malty cinnamon, clove, and spice flavors.

Deschutes Jubelale Bend, OR, 6.7% ABV This dark cola brown colored brew offers sweet aromas of vanilla and dates with easy-drinking stone fruit and malty flavors. Each year the label features the artwork of a different local artist.

He’Brew Jewbelation Brooklyn, NY, 15% ABV It may seem somewhat odd to list a self-proclaimed “chosen beer” as one of the best Christmas beers. However, not only was Jesus a Hebrew, it’s hard to imagine a Christmas holiday without enjoying at least one bottle of this eccentric American masterpiece. The 15th anniversary edition sports 15 malts, 15 hops, 15 additions, and 15% alcohol. It is wise to divide this brew up as Jesus did the loaves and the fishes.

Oakshire Brewing Ill-Tempered Gnome Eugene, OR, 6.8% ABV Another Pacific Northwest beer that reigns in the winter chill. Oakshire’s Gnome has a dark ruby brown color with enticing notes of burnt sugar, raisins, and toffee. A fresh dose of citrusy hops lends this brew a subtle and refreshing finish.

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