If the first round of winter offerings two weeks back was more hop-driven than typical of the style (led by Sierra Nevada's Celebration), this trio is considerably more traditional. Rich and creamy malt flavors are what most people expect and enjoy in a winter brew, and the current lineup offers just that. But the nice thing about all three is that none are over-the-top. Again, balance is the key, and it is that element that marks all of my favorites. Here are three worthy bottlings that walk on the sweeter side of the season.
Anchor Brewing Christmas Ale
From the West's original microbrewery, this is Anchor Steam's 34th edition of their classic seasonal. As always, bright spice defines the nose with nutmeg, clove and ginger playing against sweet malt and soft, resiny hops. The palate is on the mellow side this year, but there is plenty to like with roasted malt and gingerbread up front, red berry and a nice charred toast quality in the middle, finishing with bittersweet chocolate and creamy spice. It's an eminently quaffable brew.
Anderson Valley Brewing Winter Solstice Seasonal Ale
This seasonal ale opens with lightly herbaceous aromas that segue into candied apple and spice. It's definitely on the sweet side of the flavor spectrum with an enticing mix of chocolate and vanilla along with something like dark and chewy whole-grain bread. The finish has a creamy latte quality to it. You feel—more than taste—the slightest hint of hops. It's the perfect fireside companion on a cold winter's night.
Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale
Winter Welcome smells like a freshly baked apple pie with subtle layers of fruit, warm dough and spice, all backed by touches of mineral and herbal hops. The flavors are round and rich but not overblown, with smooth caramel-laced, lightly toasted malt dominating the palate. The finish is surprisingly dry, and there are nice hits of citrus and resiny hops to help keep things in balance. This Yorkshire-based brewery makes some of the best ales around and this one is no exception.