DRAFT PICKS: Winter warmers for winter weather

With the holidays rapids approaching, more and more serious beer aficionados and even those with a passing admiration for the brewer’s craft, are stocking up on what are often called “winter warmers.”

In a previous article, warmers were discussed, but a few more words on the topic might be in order at this point.

In very general terms, winter warmers lean toward the malty side of things. They are generally maltier in both taste, body, and color. This certainly doesn’t mean that there are no “warmers” with defined hoppiness, it simply suggests there is more of a malt-forward presence.

“Winter warmers” are a bit higher in alcohol content and there is a bit more ‘heat’ in them than in standard lagers and ales - hence the name “winter warmers.”

Just because a brew has an infusion of traditional autumn and winter ale spices does not mean it is a “winter warmer.” The warmers are best defined by alcohol rather than by spiciness or herbal additions.

In the U.S., “winter warmers” are often defined as having a range of alcohol by volume just a touch above the standard lager - approximately 5.5-8.0 percent according to Beer Advocate.

Now ...”winter warmers” should not be necessarily mistaken for “strong beer.”

Most “winter warmers” may be “strong beer”, but not all “strong beers” are “winter warmers.”

Strong beer is an entirely different kettle of fish - or tun of malt in this case.

There has been more and more competition amongst brewers to create the strongest brew on eh market while still retaining the characteristics of beer.

American brewers are getting into the game that has been dominated by European brewers for some time.

Back in October, the Brewmeister Brewery, a Scottish operation, announced release of a line-production brew called Armageddon. Armageddon appears to be the world’s strongest beer with an  Alcohol By Volume content of 65 percent.

Pretty hefty if you consider that I just noted a few lines up that most “winter warmers” reached some 8 percent ABV.

Armageddon “ ... is freeze fermented which leaves richest alcohol content in the beer itself.

Brewmeister spokesman, Lewis Shand, one of the company’s co-founders said; “In some respects, it is closer to a liqueur than a beer, but it is classified as a beer and we are pleased with it.”

In a press release, company brewers suggested Armageddon “ ...should be sipped and served in small doses.”

Don’t get too excited though. Armageddon beer is not for sale in the U.S. It reportedly can be ordered online through the company website. I haven’t checked this out though, since a single bottle costs approximately $52.

I’m not cheap. Just poor!

The British have been brewing “strong beer” for a long, long time. Originally, strong beer was the best beer produced out of a given process. Later keggings, or bottlings, from the same brew batch were weaker than the first, and were called “small beer.” Small beer was used in the production of porter.

While you may not be able to get European “strong beers” in the U.S., there are some excellent examples coming out of American breweries - and often released around the holidays.

Here are a few I’ve had the pleasure of trying - in moderation.

For a decade, or more, the Boston Beer Company - the Samuel Adams team - have been brewing Utopias, a barley wine that checks in at 28 percent ABV.

The brewers report: “To create Utopias, the brewers at Sam Adams used traditional brewing ingredients including all four types of Noble hops, which add a slightly earthy, herbal taste. The spiciness of the hops really comes alive. In fact, Utopias MMII has even been described by some as almost “fiery” ...

“Beyond the special brand of hops, Utopias features ingredients that truly set it apart from other varieties of beer. Utopia contains caramel and Vienna malts for its rich amber color and several different types of yeast including a variety found in champagne.”

I had a snifter of Utopias at a friends home in Grand Rapids on a very special occasion.

It is good ...and strong!

Now, don’t hurry out to your local party store. Odds are, at $100 or more a bottle, (and since Utopias is limited to 3000 bottles), they may not stock it. If you’re really interested, let me know.

Another brew with muscle that is available is DuClaw’s Colossus - an  American Strong Ale.

DuClaw is out of Abingdon, Maryland. The company’s commercial description reads: “The name says it all! This unique brew comes in officially at 21.92% ABV. This was accomplished by the use of 3 different strains of yeast and a lot of TLC.

“Technically an ale, but this monster has complex flavors and aromas that suggests characteristics of mead and fruit wines.”

Yum. But be careful.

Now, something a little closer to home. Big Buck Brewery in Gaylord has been turning out a hefty  brew called Big Buck Imperial Porter. It has an impressive 20 percent ABV.

This is only served on site in Gaylord, and is brewed in a limited edition so it might be tough actually getting a handle on this brew.

I have recently heard high praise for the brewer’s effort.

And now, more Christmas holiday offerings.



Sierra Nevada Brewing Company

Chico, CA

A very substantial head forms rapidly and with authority, lasting a good while ...quite a good while. The foam is off-white - a light beige with a yellowish tint.

There is a definite and defined hoppiness in the first bursts of aroma. This brew is tagged as a “fresh hop ale,’ and there is no deception in the description. There are certainly some citrus-like tones and a certain woodsy background that I believe will be quite welcoming to most holiday explorers.

Enjoy the head. It lasts long enough to release continuing waves of scent.

The hoppiness is not shy about its introduction to the mouth. It fairly smacks the taste buds, standing out against a backdrop of malts.

The hops control the taste process , but not as assertively as in an IPA.

This brew is somewhat tart, but not sour. Quite woodsy. Bold and, in fact, intense.

There is bit of an acidic, almost bitter after-taste that stays around well after the last swallow.

For those who are less enthusiastic about hops - those who lean to the malts - this brew may not fully satisfy.

It has a lingering mouth-feel and I’d suggest Celebration needs a roasted meat dish as a culinary balance.

This isn’t, in my opinion, a beer you’d serve immediately before a meal, nor as a dessert brew or a finisher.

Christmas Ale

Breckenridge Brewery

Breckenridge, CO

This Christmas Ale pours a deep auburn color, (almost like a root beer), and forms a finger-thick layer of off-white head that disappears pretty quickly leaving a thin layer of bubbled foam with mild lacing.

There certainly is enough foam to attest to a generous use of malts.

There is a malty aroma that leads quickly to a light fruitiness - a touch of pear or apple - with a background scent of mild hops.

At first taste, the hops take over pushing the fruitiness to the edges of the palette. There are pronounced whispers of the malts, but the hops take a firm grip at the roof or the mouth and settle there for the duration.

The hoppiness is not off-putting or acidic, but rather is more floral in character. The hops sing solo with the malts keeping a well-tuned holiday harmony.

There is a caramel backdrop, but it can only be savored with serious exploration.

This holiday ale is no where near as spicy or sweet as one might expect from a dedicated Christmas ale effort. It’s a little surprising how really non-descript this ale is considering its claim to be a special Christmas brew.

This is a pretty decent American Brown style ale, but not one I’d have front and center on my holiday table.