They've been trickling in since the middle of October, and now that the dark chill has really settled in, more than a dozen have hit the shelves. I'm talking about winter beers, those seasonal offerings designed to help warm against the cold weather.
I have to admit that many of these brews aren't to my liking. Their big, sweet malt, over-the-top style leaves me wanting less. Winter offerings should be darker and fuller bodied than their warmer season counter parts, but I'm looking for something to balance all that rich malt. With that in mind, here are my favorites, tasted blind but subjectively so:
On the clean and dry end of the spectrum, Sierra Nevada's Celebration Ale is a perennial favorite. This year's entry is no exception, showing good balance with the emphasis on hops that are nicely backed by soft, toasty malt. The finish is crisp and long in this copper-hued classic.
This year's Snow Cap from Pyramid shows much better balance than it has in the past. With more rich malt flavor than the Celebration, the hop bitterness comes through most prominently on the finish, providing a nice counterpoint. It's an excellent effort and a great choice to serve with food.
On the sweeter side of things, Hale's Wee Heavy is heads above the rest. Marked by lots of rich, toasty malt with a distinctive caramel flavor, there's still a nice balancing bite of hops and it finishes with a hint of citrus and a touch of spice.
Some breweries add real spices to their holiday offering. Anchor Brewing has been doing it for over 30 years and their Special Ale just keeps getting better with each batch. Pine and clove aromas let you know what to expect, and while spicy malt flavors dominate the palate, there are just enough light hops to keep things fresh and clean. Spiced ales aren't usually my thing, but Anchor does it well and does it right.
Fruit flavoring also seems like a great way to ruin a good brew, but New Belgium's seasonal bottling of Frambozen changed my mind. With its beautiful raspberry jam aromas and soft, elegant style, what's not to like? Rich and creamy berry flavors with no hop bite to interfere make this a charming alternative to the typical winter fare. Serve this one a bit warmer than usual to get the full effect.
Editor's note: For a sip of something locally brewed, check out the following offerings from Boise beer meisters. The winter seasonal at Highlands Hollow Brewhouse is Face Plant Porter. Sockeye Grill and Brewery brews a Winterfest that's on tap at the Cole Road brewery as well as at bars throughout town. The Boise River Ram and Microbrewery's annual Lost Reindeer Winter Ale is on tap for now, but it's a popular one that may not last through the end of December. In fact, TableRock's Winter Cheer has already been so popular that it's tapped out and patrons are eagerly awaiting more.