Cold snaps in the weather make for fine opportunities to sip bold winter beers, bursting with spices, roasted malts, and complex flavors. There's a great scene in the 2007 documentary American Brew where late British author Michael Jackson (a.k.a. the Beer Hunter) describes a perfect scenario for sipping a dark ale. He's in a pub, holding a full pint of heavy Rogue ale. "This would be even better on a cold night," he says, "just as the rain is hammering against your window panes, and you're in a nice, comfortable leather chair, and your wife's gone to bed, and you've a got a bit of peace. You can have a bit of beer and some quiet time."
It's the ideal session for any good imperial stout, old ale, barleywine, or strong lager.
A few years ago, Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale, Harpoon Winter Warmer, Samuel Adams Winter Lager, Red Hook Winterhook Ale, and Anchor's Our Special Ale seemed like rare treats, but these days there's a terrific variety on the shelves.
Full Sail Brewing issues a wonderful winter offering every year called Wassail (7 percent a.b.v.). Based in scenic Hood River, Ore., in the middle of the Pacific Northwest's hops-growing region, Full Sail has brewed this malty, full-bodied ale every holiday season since 1988. Clear and coppery, Wassail boasts four different malts and a blend of Northwestern hops that come across a little sharp and piney in the first few sips. The hops linger a bit in the finish, too, alongside a breath of cinnamon and a raisin-like fruitiness. Wassail would pair nicely with a warm slice of coffee cake or a spicy dish of bread pudding.
So would the mildly smoky Old Man Winter Ale (7.7 percent a.b.v.) from Southern Tier Brewing Co. in upstate New York. It's bready, pungent, and rich with sweet, caramel flavors and a woody finish. The brewers say Old Man Winter Ale "throws a deep and inviting hue with a thickness that clings to the glass and the warmth of an open flame." It's also perfect by itself for that cold, rainy session of which Jackson spoke.
Asheville's Highland Brewing Co.'s Cold Mountain Winter Ale comes in a more moderate strength of 5.8 a.b.v. This spicy, amber-colored ale is malty and delicately hopped. The slightly floral flavors become more complex with each sip, offering a bit of fresh vanilla, milk chocolate, rose water, and almonds. Creamy and well-balanced, Cold Mountain Winter Ale is quite drinkable and would complement a dark chocolate dessert nicely.
An "old ale" in the classic English style, Denver's Great Divide Brewing Co.'s award-winning Hibernation Ale avoids the fancy spices and herbs and aims for a cleaner complexity and balance. Roasty without tasting burnt, Hibernation is a bit more hoppy than the traditional old ales of England. At a sturdy 8.7 a.b.v., it packs an appropriate punch. This one would pair well with corned beef, steamed oysters, or sharp cheeses.
On a much stronger note, Bell's Brewery in Michigan calls their mighty Third Coast Old Ale (10.2 percent a.b.v.) a "cellarable American-style barleywine" perfect for snowy evenings. The silky ale has an intensely fruity dark malt aroma (think molasses over steaming oatmeal with blackberries and dates). It's a chewy, slow-sipping beer that warms the body and the soul for a post-dinner wind-down.
The last brew in our wintry six-pack is from New York's Ommegang Brewery. The heavily spiced Adoration, 10 percent a.b.v., comes in corked 750 ml bottles. It pours copper-brown with a slight haze and a very creamy head. To spice it up, they use fresh mace, cardamom, grains of paradise, and orange peel. Despite a high level of malt in the recipe, it's a well-balanced ale. Frothy, fruity, and full of zing, Adoration is the mightiest winter beer of the pack, but you won't go wrong with any of them on a blustery January night.