Everywhere you look, the signs of time’s passage can be seen. Depending on where you live, the leaves are changing color (or they might already be lining the ground, waiting for you to break your back raking them up). No matter where you are though, fall and winter are great times for beer lovers. You will find a lot of seasonal beers out there, from traditional seasonal options to innovative new recipes from some of the nation’s most respected craft brewers. What’s on tap? For those new to the world of seasonal craft brews, some explanation might be in order. Here are a few of the different autumn and winter beer types that you’ll find out there.
Unless you are brand-spanking new to the world of craft beer, you’ve at least seen pumpkin ale. These come out around the beginning of October and you’ll find them available through the end of the year (sometimes longer). Pumpkin ales span a very wide range of flavors and characters, from polished well-balanced beers that have only a hint of pumpkin to those that positively reek of pumpkin pie and go down like a bottle of syrup (hey, to each his own!). Pumpkin brews can be found in several styles, but they generally have less hops added to the mix and feature a range of different spices to kick up the flavor, including cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom and more.
Harvest ales are somewhat similar to pumpkin ales in that they have a more sweetness and a higher ABV than those brewed for summertime refreshment. Harvest ales often feature brown sugar, molasses, fruity characteristics (think apple) and other differences from standard ales. They are also often highly hopped and feature strong malt flavors (some craft brewers use four types of malt in their brewing). Fruit flavors other than apple include raisins and figs.
A “winter warmer” is not technically a style of beer like a pumpkin ale. Rather, it’s a stronger version of a regular recipe that’s been ramped up for the winter season. Winter warmers often have an ABV of 8% or higher, which makes drinking more than one or two at a go something of a dangerous proposition for some. They are also often darker beers than their spring and summertime brethren. Black barley features heavily here, and hops use is usually a bit less than during the rest of the year. You will also find a very wide range of other ingredients used here – honey, herbs, spices and brown sugar are just the tip of the iceberg in this regard. Quite a few craft brewers use their winter warmer as an excuse for unrestrained creativity, which can result in some very tasty offerings.
Stout is brewed and consumed through the entire year. However, it really comes into its own during the autumn and winter. The heavier character and richer taste really stand out when it’s cold outside. Quite a wide range of stout types are available during the colder months of the year as well. You’ll find oatmeal stouts, pumpkin stouts, harvest stouts and traditional recipes on offer from craft brewers all over the US. Imperial stouts are also very popular at this time of year. Like stout, porter is also a popular fall and winter beer, thanks to its rich nature and hearty character.
Christmas ale is usually medium bodied (you won’t find many seasonal pale or light bodied ales during the colder months of the year). However, the real difference here comes from the spices, flavors and other ingredients used. Traditional Christmas ale uses ingredients like orange peel, cloves and nutmeg. However, you’ll find more creative options on the market too, like ginger, honey, cinnamon, chocolate and caramel. As a note, some Christmas ales are really winter warmers in disguise. If you are not a fan of high ABV, make sure you check the packaging carefully.
Spiced ale starts rolling out in October or November (depending on the brewery and your geographic location) and is available through January. It is usually a brown or amber ale with plenty of body to it, and brewers can add a range of different spices to improve character and flavor. You’ll find that ginger features heavily as a spice in these beers, as does cinnamon. Other spices include allspice, cloves, oranges (both sweet and bitter), nutmeg, molasses and honey. It is often similar to Christmas ale, though the ratio of ingredients can differ significantly between the two brews.
Some brewers use this for their winter warmers, but winter ale can also be considered a distinct style. These are usually dark beers and they have a full body and relatively high ABV. They can sometimes have a rather sweet finish as well, though that is by no means true for all of them (these vary drastically from brewer to brewer, so have fun with the experimentation).
A Wide World of Options
While you might think that spring and summer bring you the most options in the world of craft beer, that’s not really true. The colder months of the year can also be great times for exploring the options put out by your favorite craft breweries (or even Big Beer if that’s your thing).
Some brews are designed to be enjoyed around a specific holiday, but don’t let that pigeonhole you into thinking that you can’t crack open a bottle any old time you want. Craft beer is all about enjoying what you like, when you like it. Most of these seasonal fall and winter brews are only available for a very limited time each year, so get with the program.
Whether you prefer to hoist a pint of stout or enjoy a mug of spiced ale, fall and winter have some truly incredible options to tempt your palate. A quick perusal down at your local grocery or specialty beer store should yield up some interesting options.