It's no secret that I love winter beers, and I take every opportunity to try out each year's offerings, which are taking over the shelves of local beer shops. It makes sense: The holiday season is the perfect time to sit back and enjoy a strong, rich and complex brew to warm the spirits.
It occurred to me that this would be a great opportunity to have a winter beer tasting. Rather than sample dozens of beers alone, I chose to invite some of my beer-loving friends to let me know what they thought about this year's round of heavily hopped celebration beers, spiced ales, and traditional winter warmers.
The tasting was set up with a couple of bottles of each beer, brought out in small groups and accompanied by pretzels for palate cleansing, as well as a pitcher of water for rinsing between samples.
As we worked through the beers, it was interesting to see which ones enjoyed a common consensus within the group. Although no one was offended by most of the beers, no one was overly moved by the entries by Smuttynose, Sam Adams (Winter Lager, Old Fezziwig, and Holiday Porter), Weyerbacher, Blue Moon, Magic Hat (Howl), Blue Point or even my beloved Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale.
Most agreed that these were good beers that were quite drinkable but didn't stand out quite as much as expected for a winter seasonal.
Michael and Darrel liked the smooth body and light spice of the Blue Point, and William enjoyed the Sam Adams Winter Lager, although he had recently tried it at a local pub and was convinced the draft version was superior. Several commented on the noticeable alcohol flavor in the Samuel Smith's, which was not evenly balanced by the somewhat light body, although I suspect this was more a product of the previous beers' richness than a lack of depth by this one.
In contrast, there was near-unanimous agreement about a few beers that everyone seemed to enjoy. The first was the Brooklyn Winter Ale, which Matt felt had a pleasantly bready, malty body; Michael agreed, adding that it was well-suited for a holiday gathering.
The next big splash came from Peak Organic Winter Session Ale, which most noted for its extremely fresh, clean hoppy finish. Everyone was intrigued by the flavor nuances in an otherwise hoppy beer, with Geneva getting hints of citrus and nuts, William detecting notes of maple syrup, and Matt picking up on raisins and caramel.
Sierra Nevada's Celebration Ale was a winner for most, but it was surely a firm second to the Peak in the category of hoppy winter beers.
The rich brown ales from Summit and Lost Coast (Winterbraun) were crowd-pleasers, but they did not provoke the strong reaction that some of the less-subtle entries did, such as the Holiday Cheer from Shiner. This was a surprising beer, catching everyone off-guard by its strong peach flavor, a firm break from the traditional holiday beer flavorings.
Great Divide's Hibernation was aptly named, as it was perhaps the most polarizing beer of the night, with everyone noting its intensity and strong flavor but few agreeing on its drinkability. Michael was put off by it, but Lisa loved its spicy, molasses notes, even going so far as to draw hearts next to the entry in her tasting notes.
Some of the more popular beers were the heavily spiced ones, with Hoppy Brewing Company's Hoppy Claus Holiday Ale getting high marks from Laura, who thought it tasted like a delicious fruit cake, and William, who enjoyed it, but was slightly perplexed by the combination of citrus, clove and licorice flavors.
The Anderson Valley Winter Solstice Ale was also a hit, with Geneva and Ken commenting on its strong vanilla flavor and chocolate finish.
Another love-it-or-hate-it beer came from Rogue, in the form of Santa's Private Reserve. Most agreed that this beer had strong spruce flavors and gave the overall impression of an herbal tea.
This provoked completely opposite reactions in some people, with William enjoying the dry finish, reminding him of iced black tea, and Jason handing his off, unable to finish it.
Not everyone was impressed with Woodchuck's winter cider, with Laura and Ken commenting on its similarity to regular Woodchuck, with just a slight twist. Michael enjoyed its vanilla notes, and several others picked up on a subtle oakiness in the background.
The Harpoon Winter Warmer was fairly well agreed-upon, with most enjoying its up-front spiciness. Lisa, who had tried this one early in the evening, said it was the first beer of the bunch to make her think of the holidays — a festive and flavorful ale with hints of ginger and cinnamon.
We wrapped up the evening with Scaldis Noel, a fitting end to the night. This was a big beer, with Michael, William, and Jason all picking up on a whiskey-like character, likely a result of oak barrel aging. Ken thought this had a slight acidic bite, almost like a sour brown ale, but he agreed that it was a very good beer.
In all, we managed to sample around 25 different beers, with opinions ranging from absolute joy to the threat of a drain-pour (don't worry, I would not allow this in my house).
But as clichéd as it may seem, the best part was getting some good friends together and enjoying some great beers, a fitting scenario for holiday cheer.