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Winter Brew Breakthrough

Balanced malt and spice is all the rage


After tasting much of the lineup of this year's winter seasonals, one thing has stood out. Back in the day, the emphasis was on either rich malt or a big spice component. Sierra Nevada's Celebration was one of the few more-balanced offerings with its prominent hop presence. Well, the pendulum has swung back, and more breweries are easing up on the malt or toning down the spice. This is a good thing, overall, when balance wins out over excess. Here are three worthy winter entries:

Anchor Christmas Ale 2011

They've been brewing this special holiday ale since 1975, and though the recipe changes each year, there is a certain continuity in style. This year's version has a deep chestnut color with lots of fruit on the nose--plum, fig, apple, raisin--and lightly spiced hops. Fruitcake flavors (in a good way) lead off, backed by smooth malt, dried fruit and sweet spice. Light pine-laced hops come through on the finish.

New Belgium Snow Day

This brew is a bit different from what I was expecting from this Colorado brewery, considering its penchant for Belgian-style brews. But then, that is an immensely varied category. This black ale offers smoky malt and herb-laced hop aromas. Snow Day has nice piney hops on the palate, with an equal amount of roasted malt, which is all good. This beer is a lighter style that somehow misses the mark a bit for winter, but it's still an enjoyable brew.

Ninkasi Sleigh'r Dark Double Alt Ale

Balance is definitely the key with this beer--it's an ebony pour with a rich tan head, and the aromas combine piney hops with spicy malt. There are luscious dark fruit flavors up front with a good core of sweet and toasty malt. You get nice touches of spice (something like pumpkin pie) and hops that are omnipresent but never overwhelming. This is a very satisfying winter warmer.