The Session: Winter Seasonal BeersThe topic for this month’s “Session”, chosen by Ted at Barley Vine, is Let it snow, let it snow, Winter Seasonal Beers.

To that end, I’ve sampled several seasonal brews and even brewed some. In addition to those that I’ve tasted and brewed this year, I feel like talking about some of my favorites from years past. There’s just nothing like fond recollection…

New Year’s Beers

My friend, Gustaaf DeRidder, and I share the hobby of home brewing. He entered into it earlier than I and has made some phenomenal beers – several in which I have participated in the brewing activities. Before Malin (my wife) got pregnant with our son, we spent the holidays with Gustaaf and his wife at the time, Audra (alas, these two very good friends of ours have divorced). Audra’s older brother, Jason, is in fact a long time friend of mine from my high school era. And Gustaaf and Jason used to brew together when they shared an apartment near USC (the one in Columbia, SC – not southern California).

So, for several subsequent years, Malin and I traveled to visit Gustaaf and Audra for the week between Christmas and New Year’s – a couple of times when they lived in Baltimore, MD and a couple of times in Durham, NC. Gustaaf and I would always brew a beer on New Year’s Day (what better way to nurse the hang-over from the previous night?).

Two of those New Year’s collaborations turned out especially delicious:

  • New Year’s Wee Heavy, from 2002. This beer didn’t really resemble a Wee Heavy despite the fact that the recipe was adapted from the Clone Brews recipe for Traquair House Ale. Gustaaf (whose father is Belgian and who is a big fan of Belgian styles of beer) influenced the beer’s overall character with a good bit of Belgian specialty grains – Cara-Munich, Biscuit, and Aromatic malts. We also used way more flavor and aroma hops than one would normally find in a Wee Heavy. We even dry-hopped it!
  • New Year’s Grand Cru, from 2003. This beer was one of my favorite home brewed beers – definitely my favorite home brew which was not an original recipe (I say not original because I had a co-conspirator [Gustaaf] who helped concoct it – that’s why you won’t find this one listed as a Hump’s brew in the Brews section of this site). This was a strong Belgian ale (about 7.4% abv) that was spiced with Coriander seed, CuraƧao orange peel, and Seeds of Paradise. Delicious!

Hump’s Holiday Ales

I have crafted several of my own winter seasonal beers, which I affectionately call my holiday ales. Sometimes the affection is not 100% deserved – but I dole it out nevertheless, like the mother of an ugly child.

My favorite recipe for Hump’s Holiday Ale was from 2005. This was a strong, sweet ale that was flavored generously with Vanilla bean. Last year’s recipe (2006) was supposed to be a winter-spiced robust porter, but the cloves and allspice stole the show. I’ve referred to it many times as a clove monster. I just kegged this year’s holiday beer tonight, and I think it will turn out pretty good. An initial taste of it last week demonstrated some strong notes of hot cinnamon that were quite peculiar in a beer. But these quirks have toned down. The beer tasted pretty good tonight… Hopefully Monday (when it should be carbonated) it will taste even better…

Commercial Brews

My all-time favorite holiday brew was from the Highland Brewery in Asheville, NC. They release Cold Mountain every year, and they vary the recipe from year-to-year. I can’t remember the year exactly (probably 2001?), but I remember drinking a pint of this winter warmer at Barley’s Tap Room and Pizzeria several years ago. It tasted like liquid ginger bread cookie. It was the first winter warmer I can remember that was heavily spiced, and I loved it.

After that experience, I actively sought out winter warmers. I found a reliable companion in Harpoon’s Winter Warmer. It is a light ale that is pleasantly spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. For years this was my wife’s favorite winter beer. The only reason it no longer holds that title is because it is no longer easy to find in these parts (Harpoon beers are still commonplace, but they send much less winter brew our way).

This year, I’ve tried several new winter seasonal beers that are a bit of a departure from the two just mentioned above:

  • Allagash Grand Cru: This beer is a very strongly flavored Belgian specialty ale. For the most part, I really like it. But some of the fruit and spice notes clash somewhat. I’ve tossed one bottle into my cellar to see how well it rounds out after a year or two. Overall, despite these bold, contrasting flavors, I think it is an excellent winter beer, and I highly recommend it. I was really stoked to find it in the store as Allagash brews are only very recently available here in Georgia.
  • JosephsBrau Winterfest: This beer is a doppelbock that is sold only at Trader Joe’s stores. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly authentic. It is malty, but it has a character (perhaps from the yeast?) that is definitely more reminiscent of a strong American lager than a strong German one. I haven’t yet tried any of the other Trader Joe exclusives, but this one was only mediocre. I picked it up recently during my very first trip to a Trader Joe’s here in Atlanta. I’ve been to these stores in California before, but they’re a recent addition to Atlanta’s repertoire.
  • Victory Hop Wallop: Whoah! This beer was a very interesting brew. It is amazingly light in color considering its style and strength (Imperial India Pale Ale, 8.5% abv). It is also intensely sweet. And at the same time it is incredibly hoppy and bitter. The hops are distinctly American, and they contribute a “shampoo” flavor (a term coined by a friend of my sister’s upon tasting Sierra Nevada Bigfoot). In other words, loads of pine and some citrus. Its great punches of flavor combined with its alcoholic strength definitely make it a sipping beer. I stashed one of them in my cellar, next to bottles of Golden Monkey and Storm King that I bought in the Spring. It will be interesting in a few years to see if/how the hops mellow over time.

That about sums up my thoughts on winter beers… I chose to write a little about a lot of different brews instead of going into detail about any one brew. I guess I haven’t yet had a winter seasonal this year that could really inspire me to write a post wholly dedicated to a single beer.

Stay warm, everyone!