Winter hasn't even officially begun, but winter beers and holiday seasonals have already been on the shelves and bar taps long enough that I thought I'd offer a quick rundown of those I've particularly enjoyed so far this year -- and one that gave me a good laugh.
This is by no means a definitive list, as I'll have plenty more to add to my seasonal favorites list, especially after Monday night's tasting at the Idle Rich.
Saint Arnold Chirstmas Ale
Described by the brewery as an old ale, this one is more balanced with hops than most of the malt-heavy beers of its type and disguises its 7 percent ABV dangerously well. It's not spiced as far as I can tell, but has a nice complex character with some spiciness from the hops at the finish that make it easy to sip. It's not overwhelming in flavor and is in fact somewhat subtle for a Christmas brew.
Great Divide Hibernation Ale
An English-style old ale, picked up at an Austin convenience store last month during my Fun Fun Fun Festival coverage, this was the first winter brew of the season that really impressed me. It has a deep ruby-amber body with a tan, frothy head. It's a rich, complex beer with notes of dark fruits like raisin and prune, earthy hops and just a slight alcohol burn from the 8.7 percent ABV. It was considerably pricier than Saint Arnold -- something like $12 or $13 for the six-pack if I remember right -- but it's still highly recommended.
Avery Old Jubilation Ale
A great warmer with a complex mix of rum, sugar, vanilla, cocoa, hazelnut and toffee -- all from the five-malt blend with no spices added. Good medium-thick body with slight hop and roasted malt presence at the finish, and an 8.3 percent ABV that's just noticeable as a pleasant warmth. One of my favorites.
Another winter warmer, but closer to the hoppy end of the spectrum, with toasty butterscotch and toffee malts and a piney bitterness at the end. A very good, if not exceptional, well-rounded beer.
Franconia Winter Wheat
A great dunkel that has the fruity banana, clove and bubblegum nose of a hefe and the dark murky brown color and caramel character of a great bock. Don't know the ABV, but a couple of pints were more than enough for me. Outstanding and highly recommended.
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Shiner Holiday Cheer
Another dunkel, but this one doesn't adhere to the German purity law the way Franconia's does, as it has added peach and roasted pecans -- perfectly appropriate for a Texas beer. It's definitely on the sweet side, with peaches prominent in the flavor and pecans just a subtle background note. The crisp finish keeps it from being too cloying.
Sierra Nevada Celebration
Each year, Sierra Nevada rolls out a fantastic IPA made from the first batch of hops from the growing season around winter time. The only difference this year, as the brewery's Bill Manley clarifies over at The Full Pint, is that the brewery labeled the beer "Fresh Hop Ale" to make clear that it's not a winter warmer or spiced holiday special release. Brewed with Cascade, Centennial and Chinook hops, it's definitely bitter with a great floral, earthy and citrusy hop presence. It's super fragrant with a sweet nose, but an exceptionally dry finish.
Blue Moon Winter Abbey Ale
Coors definitively proves that the term "abbey ale" has shed the last of its monastic connotations. To be fair, this isn't a terrible beer -- though it is a terrible dubbel. It has the nose of a cheap macro beer but tastes OK, with some caramel and toffee sweetness, none of the yeast esters associated with Belgian-style beers, and a kind of sticky gross finish. It's an abbey ale the same way Blue Moon is a witbier -- a very unchallenging, neutered, focus-grouped version of the style. I was curious enough to try it once but wouldn't recommend it to anyone who had actually heard the term "abbey ale" before this came along.
How about you? What have been some of your favorites this year?