Beer fans know that as the mercury dips, they can count on a fresh batch of seasonal brews to carry them through the darkest days of winter.
Whether you call them holiday ales, Christmas beers or winter warmers, these festive elixirs tend to follow a distinctive pattern. "They are usually richer, sweeter beers with malty character, mild hop profile and high alcohol," explains Chris McKim, owner of the Brew Kettle in Strongsville. "Many are also brewed with the addition of spices."
Just as wine drinkers tailor their preferences to match the season, so too should beer drinkers. "During the summer we want refreshing beers that are lighter on the belly," McKim adds. "In the wintertime we want that mental and physical warming sensation that comes with increased alcohol levels." Brewed exclusively for this time of year, winter warmers start appearing at bars and on grocery store shelves in time for Thanksgiving. The most popular ones are long gone by New Year's. Die-hard beer fans count down the days until they can sample the current year's offering from their favorite breweries. Many of the classics, like Anchor Brewing's Christmas Ale and Sierra Nevada's Celebration Ale, alter the recipe from year to year.
Some do so out of necessity. "My perpetual favorite is De Dolle's Stille Nacht [Silent Night]," says Erich LaSher of La Cave du Vin. "The brewery no longer has access to the original yeast, so each year they try something different in hopes of getting back to original. They never do, but it always tastes new and exciting."
Just because these winter beers are lumped into the same category doesn't mean they all taste the same. "The whole spice thing is more of an American tradition," explains LaSher. "The Belgians and British have very different ideas of what Christmas tastes like." Breweries there, he adds, have been cooking up special holiday brews for centuries. But they tend just to be more potent (i.e. celebratory) versions of their regular products.
Even among American brewers, there is great diversity within the category. "If you look across the country you'll see a wide range of different flavors among winter and holiday ales," says Garin Wright of Lakewood's Beer Engine. "Everybody around here expects all holiday beers to taste like Great Lakes Christmas Ale, which is brewed with honey and spices like orange peel, cinnamon and clove."
As an example he points to Baltimore's Clipper City Winter Storm, a British-style ESB (extra special bitter) brewed without spice but with a prodigious amount of malt and hops. Wright's own Ho Ho Ho Magic Dubbel is a high-test Belgian-style double with a sweet, rounded caramel flavor. Special beer calls for special glassware. The Beer Engine serves its winter warmers in wide-bottomed snifters, explains Wright, because "the shape allows the drinker to cup the glass, which warms the liquid and releases its fruity aromas."
Snifters serve another purpose: they compel slow consumption. At 8 to 9 percent alcohol, winter warmers are nearly twice as potent as "regular" beers. Compounding the issue is the way they are brewed. "Many are made with honey, molasses or dark sugars," explains Matt Cole, former brewmaster of Rocky River Brewing. "These highly fermentable sugars produce elevated alcohol levels without increasing body. A lot of folks don't realize that drinking a bottle of Christmas ale is not the same as drinking a Bud. These aren't session beers - they'll kick you on your butt."
Credit the time of year, perhaps, but there is something inherently seductive about these ales. "People tend to be more adventurous during this season," notes Tremont Tap House's Jason Workman. "These are people who during the year won't even try a craft beer." That increased interest has lead to an explosion of new products in the marketplace. "It's insane," adds Workman. "It's getting hard to keep track of them all."
Tremont Tap House 2572 Scranton Rd., 216.298.4451, tremonttaphouse.com Two dozen draft beers, half devoted to seasonals. Another 100 in bottles. Top Pick: Tršegs Mad Elf Holiday Ale. Bier Markt 1948 W. 25th St., 216.344.9944, bier-markt.com Two dozen draft beers, eight of which are seasonal. Another 80 in bottles. Top Pick: St. Bernardus Christmas Ale.
Brew Kettle 8377 Pearl Rd., Strongsville, 440.239.8788, thebrewkettle.com Two dozen draft beers, eight of which are house-brewed. Top Pick: Ringneck Winter Warmer. Beer Engine 15315 Madison Ave., Lakewood, 216.226.2337, buckeyebeerengine.com 28 draft beers, plus 100 or so in bottles. Top Pick: Ho Ho Ho Magic Dubbel.
Rocky River Brewing 21290 Center Ridge Rd., 440.895.2739, rockyriverbrewco.com Eight house-brewed beers on tap, three of which are seasonal. Top Pick: Rocky River Christmas Ale.
La Cave du Vin 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216.932.6411, lacaveduvin.com Eight draft, many seasonal. Another couple 100 in bottles. Top Pick: Bell's Christmas Ale.