Winter beer is a slippery category that used to comprise slightly boozy ales brewed with spices and odd grains, but has long since metastasized to include not only those traditional “winter warmers,” but also just about any damn thing a brewery’s marketing department feels like hanging a snowflake on. This can be partially attributed to pumpkin beer’s co-opting of the nutmeg trade, and I say we’re better off for it, because a lot of winter warmers are lousy. In fact, if a brewery’s primary goal is to win a Drunkspin ranking (and you have to assume it is), it’s better served by skipping the dessert dust and instead just slapping a reindeer label on a coffee stout, or cramming a bunch of hops into a pale ale and giving it a snow-pun name. It’s a pretty dirty racket!
The beers ranked below are all described by their producers as winter, holiday, or Christmas beers. They are further united by one more important factor: I drank all of them within the past couple of weeks, and took notes. The results were very heavily determined by my personal style preferences, and are irrefutable.
24. Jolly Traveler Winter Shandy
Tastes like Sprite infected with a shot of orange juice that’d been left sitting out for a couple days at a $59-a-night motel’s continental breakfast, plus “holiday spice.” No sign of the alleged pomegranate.
23. Harpoon Winter Warmer
22. 21st Amendment Fireside Chat
A dark winter warmer with fairly subdued spices and a bit of chocolate. Nothing special, perfectly drinkable, bonus points for having the decency to be 7.9-percent alcohol-by-volume.
21. Samuel Adams Winter Lager
This starts strong, with clove, cola, caramel, and cinnamon in nice balance, but there’s an unfortunate vegetal kick on the back end.
20. Beer Works Sinnterklaas
Sinnterklaas is a Belgian quad from a Massachusetts brewpub chain. It’s got a nice blend of honey, cherry, clove, and brown sugar flavors, and though a bit too sweet overall, it’s still pretty good stuff.
19. Samuel Adams White Christmas
Samuel Adams has at least 10 (!) winter- or holiday-themed beers, including Old Fezziwig, a winter warmer a lot of people love, though I haven’t seen it yet this year. White Christmas is a wheat beer with a nice lemon note complementing the cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange peel additives. It’s a solid interpretation of a style I don’t much care for.
18. Relic Biere de Noel
This is a Belgian strong dark ale from a very good Connecticut brewery. It smells like figs and chocolate and a little bit of root beer, with hints of straw and sawdust on the finish that make it seem like some dirty bastard dumped a half-ounce of Bud Light into an otherwise great beer.
17. Anderson Valley Brewing Winter Solstice Ale
This one’s very subtly spiced for a winter warmer, with more caramel and vanilla flavor than all the pumpkin pie bullshit that too often wrecks the style. The 6.9-percent ABV is very well-hidden, too. Naughty.
16. Victory Winter Cheers
This is an ambitious hefeweizen that features Citra hops along with Tettnang. The aroma is highly spiced with clove and coriander, with light bubblegum underneath, and the flavor shows more citrus, particularly lemon, and some black pepper.
15. Trader Joe’s Vintage Ale 2015
Even though we’re starting to get into the seriously good portion of the list, I’m still surprised this didn’t do a little bit better. Maybe a down year for the Vintage, maybe a good year for the rest of the field, maybe I’m just tossing darts at beer names taped to the side of the dumpster my palate and I live in? At any rate, this is a good Belgian strong dark ale that leans in the earthy, funky direction, with light chocolate and fairly muted dark fruit notes.
14. Peak Holiday Saison
Hey, you guys like beer cocktails? They’re like regular cocktails, but with beer where the soda or juice is supposed to be. They’re the best. Peak Holiday Saison tastes like cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, and lemon peel; it goes great with dark rum.
13. Starr Hill Shakedown Imperial Chocolate Cherry Stout
Sweet chocolate and medium-tart cherries work well together, and the slight heat from the 9.0-percent ABV helps rather than hinders, as it tames what might otherwise be an overly sugary affair. Shakedown threatens to be too sweet at the outset, but it soon enough evolves into a balanced, complex stout.
12. Two Roads Route of All Evil
Two Roads doesn’t call this winter seasonal a black IPA, but you and I might as well, as it’s plenty hoppy enough to qualify. Chocolate, plums, and dried dark fruit flavors give it a complexity reminiscent of some Belgian-style stouts. The citrus and pine finish is pronounced and almost severe, but a nice counterpoint to the fruit.
11. Tröegs Mad Elf
Mad Elf is brewed with honey and cherries, so it tastes like those things for sure, along with cinnamon and cloves and caramel. There’s almost no trace of alcohol despite the 11-percent ABV, making Mad Elf a well-crafted troublemaker of a Belgian strong dark ale.
10. Delirium Nöel
Another Belgian strong dark ale, Delirium Nöel tastes like caramel-covered bananas, toasted nuts, raisins, figs, and sweet berries. Plus it has a Christmas elephant on the label. Why isn’t this the overall winner? Stupid darts.
9. Spencer Trappist Holiday Ale
I have no real strong feelings about either the War on Christmas or the War on That War, other than to say I support whichever side will deliver unto me the most ham. However, I do think it’s funny or something that North America’s only Trappist brewery calls their winter seasonal a holiday ale. Even the monks are afraid to say “Christmas” now! Which, like I said, suits me fine insofar as it does not seem to affect my ham allotment. And while we’re at it, let us note that this is a damn fine Belgian strong dark ale that tastes like chocolate, molasses, raisins, and leather. It pairs nicely with ham.
8. Sierra Nevada Celebration
Here’s another one that I expected to do better, not that there’s any shame in finishing ahead of a wave of expensive Belgian-style would-be ringers. Celebration is a fresh-hopped IPA with Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook hops. It tastes like lemon and pine resin, a bit more of the latter, and I would drink this year-round if it were available. There’s a better winter IPA this year, though; keep scrolling.
7. Riverwalk Winter Porter
This is a 6.3-percent-ABV porter flavored with cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans. That sort of thing can sometimes devolve into a too-sweet mess that might as well have mini marshmallows floating in it, but Riverwalk Winter Porter is a serious beer, with light cinnamon and heavier sweet vanilla notes complementing the medium-dark roasted chocolate malt.
6. Anchor Winter Wheat
Why the hell isn’t the famous Anchor Christmas Ale on this list? I dunno, man. But here’s its surprisingly cool cousin! This relative newcomer is in its second season (Christmas Ale turns 41 this year), and it’s already a near-winner. It’s a very dark beer with caramel, wheat toast, and light coffee notes up front, and a bit of lemon, mint, and pine on the finish.
5. Smuttynose Winter
Brewed in the style of a Belgian abbey dubbel, Smuttynose Winter Ale is a rich, complex 7.5-percent beauty. It contains no added spices, relying instead on yeast, malt, hops, and dark Belgian candi syrup to produce a fruity and spicy beer that features notes of dark chocolate, raisins, red berries, pine, lemon, and black pepper.
4. Tröegs Blizzard of Hops
This wheat-heavy IPA uses Centennial, Chinook, El Dorado, and Galaxy hops to create fantastic citrus and tropical fruit flavors atop just enough earth and pine resin notes to prevent it from teetering over into the Juicy Fruit category of modern IPAs. Blizzard of Hops tastes like pineapple and grapefruit and, if you concentrate enough, Christmas tree.
3. Great Divide Hibernation
An 8.7-percent-ABV English-style old ale, Hibernation is nearly barleywine-like in its complexity. It shows vanilla cream, chocolate, and light mint on the nose, with caramel, plum, prune, and cherry flavor developing with time and a surprisingly bitter finish. This is a very thorough and exceptional beer for the price (approximately $11 per six-pack).
2. Lagunitas Brown Shugga
Described variously as an American strong ale or a barleywine due to its complicated recipe and 9.9-percent ABV, Brown Shugga has great aromas of caramel, grapefruit, and pine. The flavor is much more involved, with nuts, candied citrus, pineapple, and mango joining the increasingly assertive pine. If life or I were fair, this might well be the winner. However:
1. AleSmith Double Red IPA
This is the beer known in previous years at Winter YuleSmith. I cracked this open right after my favorite football team hit a long game-winning field goal, and I freely admit that just about anything tastes good under those circumstances. However! I have since revisited my first impression, and I stand by the assertion that AleSmith Double Red IPA is the finest winter beer in all the land (among all the land’s winter beers ranked here). The first thing you notice is sweet caramel malt, quickly followed by dank pine and a light bit of citrus. It’s perfectly balanced and maybe even a bit too drinkable at 8.5-percent ABV, with no hint of alcohol heat.
Now, won’t someone please tell me all the beers I missed? I hear good things about Great Lakes Christmas Ale and Deschutes Jubelale. What else?
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.