It's winter beer time! As November came to a close, I hit the local beer stores and rounded up some friends and several stockings' worth of new winter seasonals for my third annual winter beer tasting.
We started with St. Arnold's Christmas Ale, from Texas's oldest craft brewery. This was a good starter, with Albert and Matt praising its excellent balance. I enjoyed its nutty, slightly toasty flavor, as well as its strong, warming character. We followed it with Solstice d'Hiver, a barleywine from Montreal's Brasserie Dieu du Ciel. Colette found it to be "nicely aged," and Matt detected notes of caramel and vanilla. Lisa picked up earthy flavors, noting that the beer had "almost a woody taste."
Full Pint Brewing's Festivus was the first heavily spiced entry, with William picking up cinnamon, pepper, vanilla, and hazelnut flavors and Albert enjoying its balance, calling it a "well-rounded brown ale that's good for more than one (or two)." Another spicy beer, Rivertown Winter Ale, was a hit with Colette, who gave it her top rating, commenting, "I would drink this with my breakfast." Coleman noted cinnamon and apple flavors, while John detected "rich curry spices: ginger, clove, and cardamom."
Many of this year's seasonals took a non-traditional approach, like Victory Winter Cheers, a crisp wheat beer that Andrea found to be "citrusy, with a light, zesty finish." Many said it didn't seem like a typical winter beer, but Michael envisioned drinking this while "sitting by the fire." New Belgium's Accumulation also caught much of the party off guard, as a "white IPA" seems an unusual choice for the season. Matt enjoyed it quite a bit, and Jason actually felt it was the "most holiday-ish" of the bunch so far.
Sweetwater's Festive Ale and Goose Island's Sixth Day both impressed with rich, complex flavors. Addam found cherry and apple in the former, while Megan enjoyed notes of caramel, clove and maple. Ken thought the Sixth Day was "initially sweet but with savory undertones," and detected hints of cranberry and apricot. In a similar vein was Leinenkugel's Snowdrift Vanilla Porter, which was one of Coleman's top picks ("I want some cookies that taste like this"). Andrea found it to be dessert-like, similar to almond biscotti.
The biggest hits of the night by far were St. Bernardus Christmas Ale and this year's release of Anchor's Our Special Ale (the recipe changes every year). Of the latter, Geneva noted a "fruity, grape nose," and William enjoyed its flavors of caramel, vanilla, and ginger, noting that it had a "slight cola taste." John said it reminded him of roasted marshmallows. Michael then broke our standard five-star rating system to give the St. Bernardus six stars.
There were a few other Belgian classics on the bill aside from the St. Bernardus. Delerium Noël was a "nice contrast" for Addam, who found it to be fruity and cider-like, giving it his top rating. Kasteel Winter reminded Matt, William, Michael and Albert of root beer, with William and Michael noting an earthiness reminiscent of tobacco, or in Michael's words, "a really good cigar." Père Noël also impressed, with Ken noting its hoppiness and Geneva enjoying hints of citrus and wheat.
I made sure to include a few wild cards, as well, including Southern Star's Old Potentate, a canned (!) old ale that Megan found "delicious," noting that it was "syrupy, but light enough to enjoy a whole one without getting overwhelmed." However, her favorite was Woodchuck Smoked Apple Cider, which had a strong hickory flavor that reminded her of smoked Gouda or cheddar. I also loved the complexity of this one, giving it some of my highest marks of the evening.
And I'll be honest — Mikkeller's AK Alive, a collaboration wild (brettanomyces-fermented) ale with Anchorage Brewing, is not exactly a winter seasonal, but it has an igloo right on the label, so I figured it was fair game. This one took many by surprise, with Lisa commenting that it was "exciting and different."
We wrapped up the tasting with a locally brewed treat, Cigar City's Sugar Plum. Matt enjoyed notes of chocolate and spice, while Lisa said this was the only beer we sampled that night that she "could drink a six-pack of." Colette's summary perhaps says it all: "Smells like Christmas."