Holiday traditions come in many forms, even for beer connoisseurs who welcome the dark beers of winter just as the solstice approaches.
Many breweries, including several in brew-happy Belgium, produce seasonal beers that are heavy on taste and color. They aren't exactly knife-and-fork beers, but they do have the substance and body to see you through a long winter's night.
Not that we have so many frigid nights in Florida. Still, winter beers, some even tinged with the spices and aromas of the season (think cinnamon and orange), are an interesting change from the refreshing pale ales and light lagers of summer.
Winter beers aren't limited to one style and we found spicy winter warmers, hearty stouts, deep-mud lagers and Belgian Christmas ales at several local shops. They make great gifts, especially the 25-ounce bottles that can be shared with a pal. Most have a higher alcohol content, so be judicious when knocking them back.
If you don't know beer, you'll recognize the seasonality by the label. Snowflakes, bright Christmas decor and even the tell-tale red hat lead the way. Inside the amber bottles, the brew is dark and malty, and benefits from a brief rest in the glass out of the cold fridge. These beers open up with time and temperature, just like a lusty red wine.
We found Belgian beer at Shep's (2001 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 823-6565) and the others at the new outpost of World of Beer (5226 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 525-4589). There are two World of Beer tap houses in Hillsborough County (9534 W Linebaugh Ave. in Westchase; (813) 852-2337 and 17004 Palm Pointe Drive, Tampa; (813) 632-0020) and the longtime beer specialty shop called the World of Beer, no relation to the tap houses, in Clearwater (2809 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd.; (727) 797-6905). They also carry the seasonal beers.
Starting with some big-bottle Belgian beers (some of which also come in smaller amounts) and moving on to 12-ounce single offerings, here's what we found.
Scott Keeler of the Times contributed to this report. Contact Janet K. Keeler at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.
Brasserie Dubuisson Freres, Pipaix, Belgium; $18.39, 25.4 ounces, 12.5 percent alcohol.
Scaldis beers tend to be dry so the Noel's sweetness might come as a surprise. The coppery brew has a long finish. Is that licorice we taste?
Corsendonk Christmas Ale
Brasserie Du Bocq for Brewery Corsendonk, Oud-Turnhout, Belgium; $9.99, 25.4 ounces, 8.5 percent alcohol.
Smooth and toasty with lots of malt flavor. Santa would appreciate this at the end of his run, especially with a plate of gingersnaps.
St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
St. Bernardus Abbey, Watou, Belgium; $11.79, 25.4 ounces, 10 percent alcohol.
The color of leaves way past their prime fall hue, the St. Bernardus ale puts us in the mood for caroling. If you like the punch of very dark beer, this is for you. Malty with a velvety mouthfeel. This isn't for beer sissies.
St. Feuillien Cuvé de Noel
St. Feuillien Brewery, Le Roeulx, Belgium; $10.09, 25.4 ounces, 9 percent alcohol.
Dark ruby in color and a bit bitter in attitude. Lots of roasted barley provides intense flavor and aroma. Pretty well balanced even though there's a lot going on.
Samuel Adams Winter Lager $1.50, 12 ounces, 5.6 percent alcohol.
Between the cinnamon and ginger spiciness and the orange kick is a dark beer that will suit just about everyone's tastes. Nothing outlandish here or even that special, as bland as a roof covered with new-fallen snow.
Old Jubilation Ale
Avery Brewing Co., Boulder, Colo.; $2.29, 12 ounces, 8 percent alcohol.
A nutty, red-colored beer that boasts plenty of fruit flavor. Not totally Juicy Fruit because there's a bitter edge.
Huyghe Brewery, Melle/Ghent, Belgium; $5, 11.2 ounces,10 percent alcohol.
When it's cold outside, this is the beer you want. You can get cozy with this one. Sort of like drinkable fruitcake with hints of raisins and other dried fruit. A brunette with blond highlights.
Weyerbacher Winter Ale
Weyerbacher Brewing Co., Easton, Pa.; $3.50, 12 ounces, 5.6 percent alcohol.
It has the color of a deep cherry chest of drawers, but it turns copper when light shines through. You might call it winter ale light because it doesn't have the earthy flavor of the Belgium beers. It's a bit unremarkable, and there's an aftertaste similar to when you've had a cup of hot tea.