They call them winter brews, but since their release date keeps coming earlier and earlier each year, that might be something of a misnomer. This time around they started hitting the shelves weeks before Halloween. That's more than two months before the winter solstice. Seems to me a seasonal brew should coincide with the season. Faced with the less-than-pleasant task of tasting through a dozen or more malted-up, cold weather offerings just to find a few favorites, I put it off as long as I could. Then I decided to cheat. So I hit up Matt, the Boise Co-op beer guru, for his top picks. They did not disappoint. Here is round one in the winter seasonal category:
Alaskan Winter Ale
If this ale is any indication, brewers are backing away from the uber brew offerings of the past. Smooth and balanced best describe Alaskan's Winter Ale. Spruce tips are added to the wort, and you can smell them (along with light citrusy hops) more than taste them. This dark-amber delight is off-dry in style, filled with caramel-laced malt but with ample hop bitterness. A buttery touch of clove on the finish adds interest. A tasty brew? You betcha.
Red Hook Winter Hook
Last year's offering was too sweet for me, making this year's version a very pleasant surprise. Again, balance is the key word. Nice resin- and citrus-laced hops come through on the nose along with a smooth hit of nutmeg. The brew offers a wide range of flavors including toffee, nutmeg, orange zest and cinnamon along with light touches of hazelnut and raisin. It's all balanced by floral hops and the finish is clean and dry. A great choice for the transition from cooler fall to colder winter.
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
When I asked Matt the Beer Guy what his three favorite winter releases were, he said, "Celebration, Celebration and Celebration." I concur. Year in and year out this is my favorite, more for what it isn't (over-the-top malt) than for anything else. It is a fine ale that just happens to be a seasonal. But if you don't like hops, this one is not for you—they are big and bouncy throughout, playing against bright citrus and soft malt. This one isn't necessarily the best winter brew out there (tastes differ), just my top choice to date.