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Winter Brew Battle

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So far I have tried Anchor (Our Special Ale); Sierra Nevada (Celebration Ale); Alaskan (winter ale); Full Sail (Wassail); New Belgium (2 Degrees Below Winter Ale); Red Hook (Winter Hook) and Sam Adams (Winter). Not surprisingly (as is the case most years), I enjoyed Anchor's version with Sierra Nevada's a close second. Full Sail and New Belgium's variations were good and the rest were fairly mediocre.

Does anyone else have an opinion on these Winter Brews? Any others out there that need to be tried?

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  1. I think Deschutes Jubalale belongs on your list and in your fridge. I concur with your other recommendations, particularly the Anchor and Celebration.

    1 Reply
    1. re: chuckl

      Big 2nd for the Jubelale. Also if you can find Bruery's Rugbrod, that's excellent as well.

    2. I like the Harpoon Winter Warmer, it's a little over the top, but I kind of like that in my winter brews. Very spicy.

      5 Replies
      1. re: Shaggy

        I beleive they cut back on the spices last year. A few years prior, it tasted like Big Red chewing gum.

        1. re: LStaff

          The versions of Harpoon's Winter Warmer that I tried (I have not had it in a few years) were completely smothered in cinnamon and -- I guess -- brown sugar.

          1. re: LStaff

            I think they're back on that train. I had one the other day that tasted like fireball candies. It burned!

          2. re: Shaggy

            I had it this year and didn't think it was over the top with spices and really liked it. Then my friend told me to take a sip of his after I had a different beer. It tasted way too spicy. So I guess it could depend on if you're drinking anything beforehand or not!

            1. re: Solstice444

              Good to hear that I'm not totally crazy. I also really like the Three Floyd's Alpha Klaus, thought I would throw that out there so I don't lose all credibility.

          3. Recently I have been enjoying the Belgian Scaldis Noel.

            1. Anchor's used to be a favorite until they started adding spices a number of years ago (it was originally more like a traditional WInter Warmer...no spices). Sierra Nevada's Celebration is generally my favorite one. Lancaster Brewing in PA makes a very nice one, and Samuel Smith's WW from Great Britain is also very good.

              9 Replies
              1. re: The Professor

                I think Anchor changes the recipe every year, as some years it has been spicier than others. I tend to not like overly spiced beers and last year they went way overboard. This year's version is much more subtle. Try one if you see it on tap or can get it in singles.

                1. re: MVNYC

                  Good to hear. I still have a couple Anchors from last year in the back of my pantry. Undrinkable.

                  1. re: Scott V

                    They are probably really good now.

                    I like this beer with 6-12 months on it as some of the spices drop back and more of that dark malt flavor comes forward.

                    1. re: LStaff

                      Good tip. Much better now. Wish I had more than 2.

                      Guess I'll be buying some for the holidays 2010 soon.

                  2. re: MVNYC

                    In general, I really don't like the Our Special Ale. Too much like sucking on a pine cone many years.

                    That said, if you sit on it for a few years, it does mellow out and almost becomes enjoyable.

                    1. re: MVNYC

                      agreed, I like Anchor's Special Ale a lot better this year without the nutmeg or whatever they put in it.

                      1. re: MVNYC

                        My understanding is that the Special Ale recipe is different every year, as shown by the different label each year. There is always a different tree on the label, and I was told that the tree on the label is represented in the brewing process as one of the ingredients.

                        1. re: starrcrow

                          "I was told that the tree on the label is represented in the brewing process as one of the ingredients."

                          That seems unlikely to me (altho', since it's a new "secret" recipe every year, kinda hard to prove or disprove). The labels have featured trees since the beginning (1975- which, IIRC, was an early version of Liberty Ale), but the labels have only noted "spices" and/or "natural flavors" since the late 1980's. Anchor has a nice poster with all the labels http://www.anchorbrewing.com/beers/la... , and this pdf http://www.anchorbrewing.com/beers/pd... reproduces them as well- and one can zoom in and read the specifics.

                      2. re: The Professor

                        I like the Anchor this year - not as perfumey as it has been other years. Thirty-fifth year they have made it - gotta admit that is pretty cool!

                        I liked the Lancaster offering as well. I was lucky enough to visit both their brewery and Stoudt's in the same day last month - mmmmm! The Stoudt's Winter Ale is a gorilla of a brew. Bottom line - If I were to see bottles of either, I'd scoop them up.

                      3. I've been a fan SN Celebration since the 80s. I usually like Anchor's OSA, but its appearance was more exciting for me in the early-to-mid 90s, when it really varied quite a bit from year to year.

                        I haven't been into the recent Samuel Adams Winter Lagers, and I never found Winterhook terrible interesting.

                        Rogue's Mogul and Santa's Private Reserve ales are great.

                        I don't know if North Coast's Old Stock Ale is strictly speaking a winter release, but that's when I usually encounter it. It is spectacular, in my view.

                        1. St. Bernardus Christmas ale is really, really good.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: Bat Guano

                            Life&Limb, a collaboration between Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head, is not marketed as a winter ale but is well worth a try. It's dark with a bit of maple syrup and 10% ABV. Excellent winter quaffing IMHO.

                            1. re: j mather

                              Essentially impossible to find in my area. Extremely allocated.

                              1. re: Jim Dorsch

                                Just got a bottle here in NYC for anyone interested. havent had it yet

                              2. re: j mather

                                Has anyone see Life & Limb for sale in NYC?

                            2. Deschutes Jubalale definitely deserves a taste. Widmer Brrr! is pretty good- less hoppy and more dark caramels than a lot of "winter" brews. Bridgeport Ebeneezer is tasty as well. I have a Belgian import winter brewed with juniper berries that I'm looking forward to trying.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: homebrewster

                                I like the Widmer Brrrr too. I was turned onto it last year and was glad to see it in the cooler for the first time this season in the last week.

                              2. I drink around 5 cases of SN Celebration each year. Followed up with a couple cases of Bigfoot (one during the cold months, and the other throughout the rest of the year).

                                1. Back when I lived on the west coast, I used to enjoy Full Sail's "Winter Wassail Ale." Their Imperial Porter used to come out at about the same time, and that was even better.

                                  1. Never Summer (A colorodo brewery whose name escapes me...) And Troeggs Mad Elf, at 11% it is high but has superb drinkability, love that beer!!

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: DapperDave

                                      I'll have to try the mad Elf. I'm a huge fan of Troegenator.

                                    2. Well, I had both SN Celebration and Harpoon's Winter over th eweekend. Harpoon is definitely on the spicy side. 3-4 of us went through 2 6ers of SN and there were 2 bottles of Harpoon still in the cooler.

                                      1. Definitely agree with previous posters on the Troeggs Mad Elf- really high alcohol content but very smooth. Wouldn't drink it by itself, but with food it's perfect.
                                        Sam Adams Winter was pretty unimpressive, perfectly drinkable but didn't really seem particularly distinctive.

                                        1. So I went out and got some SN Celebration Ale based on the many recommendations here. I think it's fine, but perhaps I'm missing something, to me it tastes like a standard SN IPA. Can anyone tell me what I should be tasting that makes it a Winter Ale? I'm not saying it's bad, but ito me it doesn't have any roastiness or spice that make me think of winter ales. Is my palette off, or am I looking for the wrong things in a Winter beer?

                                          12 Replies
                                          1. re: Shaggy

                                            SN Celebration Ale predates the current notion that ALL "seasonal" beers must match a certain "style"- indeed, that "season" = "style". It is a "standard" IPA -their website says as much IIRC- and a great one. (It's "standard" in the "generally accepted as authoritative" aspect of the word.)

                                            It was never meant to be a "Winter Warmer" (IIRC, the then-ATF didn't even allow that wording on beer labels when Celebration Ale was first brewed) nor is it a spiced ale, which does seem to be expected by many of beers labeled "winter" or "Christmas" beers today.

                                            What makes it a "Winter Ale"? It's released in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas and has a Holiday themed label. Good enough for me (for 2 decades or so, now).

                                            1. re: JessKidden

                                              Cool, thanks. Yes, it is a good beer, I just thought maybe I was missing something.

                                              1. re: JessKidden

                                                Celebration Ale is an excellent seasonal beer for people who don't like a lot of extra flavors (spices, citrus, etc.) in their beer. I was apprehensive to try it, expecting spices, but a friend suggested it and it was on sale, so I went ahead and tried it. Boy, am I glad I did.

                                                It's an IPA with a very strong, almost spicy bite from the hops in the finish. No cloves or allspice here, that's for sure, and I for one am thankful for that. It's a much more aggressive hops flavor than their Torpedo IPA (which has a grassy, almost pilsner-like flavor in the finish that I don't care for). I tried a six pack a few weeks ago and liked it so much that I went and bought a case of it, even though I rarely buy beer by the case. I'm going to try to pick up another before it's finished for the season, too, because it's the best beer I've had yet from Sierra Nevada.

                                                1. re: writergeek313

                                                  I love CA too, but I wouldn't say its hop flavors are "much more aggressive" than those in Torpedo. Both brews pack 65 IBUs, and I'd say CA has a juicier, sweeter malt presence that balances the hop bitterness more.

                                                  1. re: Kenji

                                                    I would agree with this as well. Celebration has a sweeter malt backbone while Torpedo is a bit dryer. They also have different hop profiles, Celebration giving more of a pine cone taste while Torpedo hitting a bit more vegetal.

                                                    Time to do a taste test

                                              2. re: Shaggy

                                                It's a straight-ahead IPA and a very good one at that. It's not intended to include the types of spice you'd expect from say Anchor's Special Ale. I would suggest that Life and Limb, Sierra's collaboration with Dogfish Head, might be more like a winter warmer, it's got some crazy flavors going on. It might be a bit hard to find, though. I just picked up a bottle of Yule Smith from Alesmith but haven't tried it yet. Has anyone tasted it?

                                                1. re: Shaggy

                                                  A Winter Beer is generally expected to be a stronger brew...after that, all bets are off.

                                                  The notion of adding spices probably has some basis in tradition but is mostly a comparatively recent fad; in any case... spices do not a Winter Ale make.
                                                  In fact, the better and most authentic ones leave the spices out completely.
                                                  In any case, as a higher gravity brew, Celebration is very much a Winter beer. And a damned fine one, at that (although it seems to have lost just a bit of it's malt balance in recent years).

                                                  Basically, like most beer "styles" whatever the brewer wishes to call a Winter beer _IS_ a winter beer. Different folks will have different expectations of what that means...but traditionally beer "styles" have always had many variables anyway.

                                                  1. re: The Professor

                                                    1700s is recent?

                                                    As with any beer, I think it's best taken on a case-by-case basis. Some spiced winter beers aren't as good as some non-spiced, but some are better. I don't think it's fair to say "most authentic" equals no spicing, given that spicing of winter beers dates back at least 300 years (though obviously not all brewers who make winter beers use spicing).

                                                    If you really want to go back, medieval gruit had no hops at all and the sweetness of the malt was balanced with nothing but spices - though that obviously predates the notion of a holiday beer.

                                                    1. re: Josh

                                                      Good points. Of course, it always has (and still does) come down to what the brewer wishes to use and what the clientele prefers.
                                                      I'm aware of the long history of adding spices to beers...I just let my own preferences get in the way of being objective. LOL. I'll work on that. ;-)
                                                      In any case, I suppose I don't mind spices in a beer if it is done sensitively. My problem with many modern examples of the "style" is that the spicing is so heavy handed that it can obscure the nice richness of a well made strong ale. Anchor's Christmas Ale was a favorite of mine until they started adding the spices after the first few years...early on they really overdid it, though in recent years they seem to have found a nicer balance. I still think it detracts from a great beer, though.
                                                      On the other hand, I guess that the use of spices can also provide an "out" for a brewer whose beer is a little less than inspiring (and there's a LOT of that around these days) or, in the case of a strong beer, getting it out the door before it has had the long aging that is desirable for beers of strength.

                                                      1. re: The Professor

                                                        Anchor's Xmas offering this year is great. I think they hit a really good balance of malt and spice.

                                                        1. re: The Professor

                                                          You might like the Goose Island Christmas Ale. I like that they show extreme restraint in the spice additions. I'm not a fan of liquid Christmas tree in a bottle.

                                                      2. re: The Professor

                                                        I believe wassail mead and mulled beer tradition goes back to the Middle Ages in Europe

                                                    2. Ayinger Celebrator has long been my favorite. It's a rich, malty dopplebock.

                                                      3 Replies
                                                      1. re: danieljdwyer

                                                        good point, I think I'll open one tonight

                                                        1. re: danieljdwyer

                                                          I like that too, though it's a year-round brew.

                                                          1. re: Kenji

                                                            Really? That seems odd. The name Celebrator and the packaging of the beer seem so Christmasy. It even comes with those (what I thought were) little Christmas ornaments.

                                                        2. I just had a Ridgeway Very Bad Elf. Very malty, good and smooth in my opinion. Supposedly based on a 1795 recipe. 7.5% ABV, and well worth a try. I also had a He'Brew Rejewvenator, touted as a doppelbock / dubbel hybrid, with some date syrup thrown in. A little interesting, but not nearly as good as the Very Bad Elf, and not as good as He'Brew's Messiah Bold.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: j mather

                                                            Agreed on the Very Bad Elf though I have not had it this year. I have a bottle in the firdge waiting to be cracked.

                                                            I thought the Hebrew Rejewvenator was disgusting though to be honest I have yet to be impressed by any of their beers.

                                                          2. About a week ago, I poured myself a Long Trail Winter White. Although not a style I drink often, I was game to try another winter beer offering. My first swallow or two were pleasant and I looked at the label - flavored with oranges and coriander seeds. OK . . .

                                                            "What are you drinking?" inquired the Mrs.

                                                            "Long Trail's winter beer - a Belgian-style white." I replied, handing her the glass. From the look in her eyes as she sampled the first sip, I figured I'd get more and resume my tasting at another time.

                                                            I did indeed get more a few days later (two bottles this time!). I really enjoyed it. The citrus notes are not overpowering and the tinge from the coriander provides some seasonal spice without making one feel as though he were drinking carbonated egg nog. I owe it to myself to keep trying the seasonal offerings, and I will. For now, however, this beer is at the top of my list.

                                                            1. Just had the Brooklyn Winter and Smuttynose Winter last night, and enjoyed both of them.

                                                              1. Give Southern Tier Old Man Ale a try, as well as Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout.

                                                                1. I tried the Dogfish Sah'tea last night. A mighty, mighty flavorful beer - chai tea, rye, juniper berries - taste was reminiscent of pumpkin pie (but without the pumpkin). It made quite a desert after a big seafood dinner. It may not exactly be a "seasonal", but it's certainly an experience. Anyone else tried this?