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Winter Extremes

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While many breweries have shifted gears with their winter seasonals, offering big hopped-up ales, the sweet malt and spice style still has its proponents. So if you're into that rich and warming style, you have a number of choices. To my taste, many of the malt-driven brews are more satisfying than the current hop monsters. In the past, too many poured on the syrup in a confused, cloying style that substituted excess for flavor, but several this year have struck an admirable balance. Here are three of my favorite rich and spicy ales:

Anchor Brewing 2007 Christmas Ale

This is the 33rd year for this special ale. Over the years it has become a little more restrained, and that's a good thing. While paying homage to past efforts, the brewers have struck a balance that is ultimately satisfying; it's dark coffee in color with smooth toasty malt and spice aromas. That requisite spice component comes through in the mouth blending nicely with the caramel and mocha-laced malt flavors, making this one a perennial winner.

Anderson Valley Brewing 2007 Winter Solstice Ale

I've always been a fan of this solar-powered brewery. Their winter entry was not among my favorites, but this amber-hued, lightly carbonated brew is hard to put down. The aromas are lightly herbaceous like fresh hay, and they're backed by toasty malt. It's not as heavy on the palate as the Belgian entry that follows, but there is ample weight and sweet malt with a light touch of spice; it's bright and fruity on the finish with just enough hops to keep things in balance.

Gouden Carolus Noel

This beauty from Belgium pours a dark amber with a thick, frothy head that has remarkable persistence. Lovely, creamy fruit and spice aromas are wrapped up in layers of sweet bread dough and light, citrusy hops. It's exceptionally smooth on the rich palate with cinnamon-laced cappuccino, spicy orange, creamy caramel, lemon zest and soft, balancing hops. If sweet and spicy is your style, it doesn't get much better than this.