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Winter Brew Breakthrough

Balanced malt and spice is all the rage

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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.