Winter Ales for Holiday Feasts

By Julie Johnson

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Brewers have traditionally adjusted their beer recipes to suit the season, with lighter drinks for the hot months and heftier brews to fight the chill. But the last century saw the ascendance of a single beer style: the America-style light lager.

The popularity of these light lagers swept aside diversity to such an extent that many beer drinkers today have never even tried the beers designed just for winter, much less considered them for special holiday occasions.

Winter beers are usually richer and more flavorful than the beers of other seasons—often darker and frequently stronger. But within the category of winter beers, there’s so much variety that it’s quite possible to imagine a different beer with every course of the holiday meal, and local breweries offer excellent possibilities.

Our fantasy holiday meal begins with an aperitif beer: a glass of Snowmaggedon Winter Spiced Ale from Raleigh’s Gizmo Brew Works. This winter warme—malty, low in bitterness, and, at 5.8% ABV, fairly moderate in alcohol—is spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange peel.

The effect is noticeable, but not harsh or overwhelming, says head brewer Joe Walton. It could be a good accompaniment to intensely flavored starters like salami, or with a cheese ball and mixed nuts. “There are spices in the meat and cheese, but not the same sweet spices—more of an aggressive, peppery spice—so I can see the flavors balancing one another well,” he says.

The label, showing an impressionistic view of cars in the snow and distant flames, “pays tribute to the craziness that ensues with a slight chance of snow in the South, as well as the Glenwood incident right outside our brewery that made national news a few years back,” explains Walton, referencing the time when cars skidded to a halt and a Honda spectacularly caught fire.

For the main course of our fantasy feast, we think a bit bolder. Holiday entrées, especially the most traditional selections, tend to be rather … beige. For good reason, we serve bright, sharp relishes to complement the turkey, gravy, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. Why not serve a similarly bright complement in a glass?

The Holiday IPA from Southern Pines Brewing is a variation on the current trend of augmenting the ever-popular India pale ale with tropical fruit. This beer, however, looks north, with unsweetened cranberry purée added to the fermenting brew. The hops are Simcoe and Chinook, known for their piney character. Spruce tips –—a traditional substitute for hops used in colonial times—bring another wintry nuance.

“We thought it would be an interesting way to combine a lot of holiday flavors in an IPA,” says co-founder Micah Niebauer. “You definitely get a resiny, slightly bitter component from the spruce tips, but it doesn’t go so far as being astringent or harsh. But you get a bit of woody tannin from the spruce, which acts as a nice balance to the tartness in the cranberries and the sweetness of the malt.” Pass the cranberries, please.

With the final course, select a beer that could either pair with dessert or replace it entirely. Stuart Arnold, the English-born founder of Fortnight Brewing in Cary, modeled his Vintage Ale on the warming, malty, limited-release beers he admired from U.K. brewers such as Fullers or Samuel Smith. Drunk young, these beers are big and assertive, but they are also brewed to be cellared, where they can mature over months or years.

“The first vintage was brewed last year. The 2016 had, straight out of the ferment, a strong cognac characteristic—so much so that people asked us if we had aged it in whiskey barrels!” says Arnold. “The cognac gave way to molasses after a few months, and the bottles I have cellared currently are oozing with plum and raisin.” When the beer goes on sale in November, it’s well worth buying enough bottles to enjoy some now and cellar others for Christmases to come.

Pair this sumptuous beer with traditional desserts. “In England we have minced pies, which I don’t think are very popular in America, and we also have Christmas pudding,” Arnold says. “Everything I’ve tasted in the Vintage Ale—the molasses, the cognac, the figs, the raisins—all invoke memories of Christmastime.”

Or for a striking contrast, serve the beer with an intense cheese: The unconventional combination of a strong, malty beer and a ripe blue-veined cheese is eye-opening. Think port and Stilton—maybe better.

Relish the coming snap in the air and sample the beers brewed just for winter. Think of these experimental bonbons as the brewer’s gift to you.