The holiday season brings with it a smattering of specialty beers from every corner of the beer-making world. Rare, small-batch releases are just as anticipated as seasonal favorites that return to us like old friends. Styles run the gamut, but rich, heavy beers and those with delicate spices really shine. “Winter warmer” traditionally refers to malty, dark beers that sometimes have a cola-like flavor profile, but contemporary craft brewers are happy to slap the label onto almost any kind of beer released for the December market.
At a festive gathering where the beer is flowing the odds are you will be running into these selections more than once. They'll be just as prevalent on the shelves of your grocery store as in any small retailer. Follow our guide to find out what to expect from the beers you'll inevitably cross paths with in the coming weeks.
5. Samuel Adams Winter Lager, The Boston Beer Co. (Boston, MA)
Spiced Bock; 5.6%
This is the most ubiquitous beer of winter. You simply can't avoid it this month, as party-goers shoulder cases of 12 nestled in their stiff-cardboard box. It's affordable, easy to find, and seasonal. But it could be better. The flavors are right — cinnamon and ginger with some citrus in an overall malty sweetness — unfortunately whatever taste you detect in the beer dissipates into a watery mess and slightly acidic aftertaste. If you're drinking in quantity though, this might be your choice.
4. Accumulation, New Belgium Brewing Co. (Fort Collins, CO)
White IPA; 6.2%
White IPA is a curious and young style. It originated as a collaboration between Deschutes and Boulevard Brewing in 2012 when brewers combined a typical IPA with a wheat beer base. This version is hoppy and fruity, but we found the lemon notes to be overpowering and the takeaway a little skunky. Still, the snowy airstream that decorates its label is charming and it's still better than any commercial beer.
3. Trader Joe's Vintage Ale 2013, Unibroue (Chambly, QC)
Belgian Strong; 9%
Admittedly, there is only one store from which you can buy this beer. Contract brewed for years by Unibroue, this bottle-conditioned beer (great for tucking into the cellar/closet/box under your bed for a few years), is all about getting a bang for your buck. Its malty, raison characters are appropriate to the style and strength, but we especially like that this year they've been less aggressive with the spicing. The alcohol is a little too obvious, but at the end of the day you'll be hard-pressed to find this style of beer anywhere else for under $5.
2. Our Special Ale 2013, Anchor Brewing Co. (San Francisco, CA)
Spice Beer; 5.5%
For 39 years Anchor Brewing has celebrated the season of good tidings with the release of Our Special Ale. It's as traditional a Christmas beer as you can find in the world of craft, and although the recipe changes slightly from year to year (as well as the tree rendered on the label, by San Francisco artist James Stitt) the beer is always spicy, medium-bodied and effervescent. Such quantities of spice have visions of McCormick's dancing through our heads. Buy it in a 1500 mL magnum and you've got an easy host gift.
1. Celebration, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (Chico, CA)
Sierra Nevada must share a graphic designer with the Log Cabin maple syrup people — really, take a close look. But don't let the illustration of a cozy woodland cabin tucked away in the snow have you think this is a spicy winter warmer. This straight-shooting freshly hopped beer is actually one of the first American-style IPAs ever brewed. With a recipe almost unchanged for 30 years, Celebration delivers a refreshing, drinkable IPA with balanced bitterness and caramel malt. We look forward to its simplicity every year.
Erika writes at erikabolden.com and @erikabolden. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.