Snippets Winter Beer Guide 2013

The idea of a Snippets Winter Beer Guide was conceived a few weeks ago, somewhere in the course of our gang’s (can we be a gang?) usual stimulating, Salon-like conversation. I can’t pinpoint exactly when the idea emerged, but I think it was sandwiched between two fart jokes. I knew this responsibility would require a rigorous amount of sitting around in a robe drinking beer. I felt up to the task. A hardship, certainly, but—sigh—I guess someone had to do it.

Whether you’re hosting the Christmas festivities this year or crashing a friend’s or relative’s throwdown, there is one thing that most of our holiday parties will have in common: booze. And if you’ve been to your local beer distributor (or  grocery store, for those of you in less Puritanical states) lately, you’ve undoubtedly seen the towers of holiday beers stacked and waiting for an oncoming holiday rush. But with so many kinds to choose from, where are we to start? And which ones are a waste of our time?

It’s impossible to try them all, but here’s a hearty start. Below are my findings from a recent sampling of this year’s seasonals (in a self-conscious departure from the multitude of snobby beer reviews available online and in print, I’m going to keep it short and to the point).

Magic Hat Heart of Darkness

magic hat heart

Brewery: Magic Hat (South Burlington, VT)
ABV: 5.7%

Magic Hat always wins me over with its artwork (and beer names). Heart of Darkness is a bitter stout that pours black. It’s dense and chocolatey, with notes of coffee (every stout review in the world uses these words; is it possible that beer isn’t as complicated as we like to pretend?). Anyway, despite echoes of other stouts, I found this one to be more complex than many and definitely one of my more memorable samplings this season. Another fireside beer, for sure. Best enjoyed while reading A Christmas Carol.

Rating: 4/5

Stoudt’s Revel Red

Brewery: Stoudt’s (Adamstown, PA)
ABV: 6.2%

A self-described “hoppy ale,” this beer pours a copper-red color—a color I like to call “darkish Nate.” It strikes a nice balance between hoppiness and drinkability—that is, it has a solid hop content, lending a bit of complexity, without being too bitter to swig. It is fragrant and floral. I wouldn’t call it memorable, but it lends itself well to a long holiday of drinking.

Rating: 3/5

Starr Hill Snowblind Doppelbock

Brewery: Starr Hill (Crozet, VA)
ABV: 7.4%

This beer pours a dark brown—thick and opaque, it screams winter. So does its ugly, tie-dye Power Rangers label. It looks like the background on one of those wolf t-shirts.

DRINK THE DOPPELBOCK AND HOWL WITH ME

The Starr Hill doppelbock tastes pungent and bitter with fruity caramel notes. It’s a pleasant fireside beer, but nothing remarkable. Best enjoyed in a wolf pack.

Rating: 3.5/5

Harpoon Winter Warmer

Brewery: Harpoon (Boston, MA)
ABV: 5.9%

A reddish amber color, this beer is one of those “something-for-everyone” types. It’s drinkable (read: it’s easy to get carried away with this one). The Harpoon’s alcohol content is stronger than you would guess. It has notes of cinnamon and other spices, but isn’t too complex—imagine if a spiced doppelbock and a Budweiser had a baby. 

Rating: 3/5

Fegley’s Rude Elf’s Reserve

Brewery: Fegley’s Brew Works (Bethlehem, PA)
ABV: 10.5%

I think I’m pretty open-minded but something about the irreverent elf on this label really gave me a bad vibe. What did I do to deserve that grimace? I paid for this beer, damn it. The color is a nice caramel brown, and the beer offers a sweet and spicy smell. The cinnamon and nutmeg afford it a nice wintry taste on the nose, with just a slightly bitter aftertaste. It’s easy to drink, and I had more than a few hearty swigs before realizing it packs a powerful 10.5% ABV. SO PLEASE BE CAREFUL?

Rating: 4/5

Brooklyn Chocolate Black Stout

Brewery: Brooklyn (Brooklyn, NY)
ABV: 10%

This beer pours the blackest blackest black. It is a very memorable, interesting stout, and is worth looking into this year if you’re interested in an explosion of flavor. This stout has a complex earthy taste with notes of (say it with me) CHOCOLATE and COFFEE. The chocolate is strong with this one. And so is the ABV…

Rating: 4/5

Sly Fox Christmas Ale 2013

Brewery: Sly Fox (Phoenixville, PA)
ABV: 5.5%

Spiced and subtle, this is a great party beer. It isn’t too strong, it isn’t too complex, but it has that winter cinnamon taste we all love. Great, accessible taste + Ugly Sweater can = Excellent addition to the cooler! (The Sly Fox Helles is also solid, but not as festive or exciting—HOWEVER, it has a sick pull-tab top in can form).

Rating: 4/5

Rudy’s Spiced Christmas Ale

Brewery: Saranac (Utica, NY)
ABV: 6.0%

Pours a light brown-yellow and can best be described as crummy. If Bud Lite had a seasonal, it’d be something like this.

Rating: 2/5

Grand Cru Winter Reserve

Brewery: Flying Fish (Somerdale, NJ)
ABV: 7.2%

The Grand Cru Winter Reserve pours a golden color. It has a delicious spiced flavor without being sickeningly sweet or overwhelming. This beer offers the best balance of drinkability and depth/flavor on the list. I strongly recommend making it a part of your Christmas festivities!

Rating: 4.5/5

Ommegang Adoration Special Winter Ale

Ommegang Adoration Special Winter Ale
Brewery: Ommegang (Cooperstown, NY)
ABV: 10.0%

My first note while drinking this beer: “Wow!” The Belgian-style Adoration pours a dark orange-brown and is very complex. It has a sweet profile with bready and spicy notes (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, cardamom). This is another great balance of sweetness and bitterness. It is somewhat more bitter and less drinkable than the Flying Fish—in part because of its higher alcohol content (again, watch out for that). VERY memorable and definitely worth trying!

Rating: 4.5/5

Santa’s Private Reserve

Santa’s Private Reserve
Brewery: Rogue (Newport, OR)
ABV: 6.0%

Santa’s Private Reserve is hoppy and floral, very fragrant upon pouring. It has a bitter nose but isn’t terribly harsh. It isn’t supremely complex, but I found it interesting and easy to drink—Rogue always has cool concepts. Santa’s Private Reserve a solid seasonal go-to, and is worth including in your celebrations.

Rating: 3.5/5

Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale

Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale
Brewery: Samuel Smith’s (Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, England)
ABV: 6.0%

Pours a copper color. This tastes pretty light and simple—even fruity—for a winter beer (I’ve been getting accustomed to the soul- and tastebud-crushing bitterness brewers seem to equate with wintertime). It is a solid ale with nothing discernibly “winter” about it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Winter Wunder Ale

Winter Wunder Ale
Brewery: 
Philadelphia Brewing Company (Philadelphia, PA)
ABV: 6.2%

This pours amber and smells spicy right off the bat. I have all kinds of love for that. The taste is a little more subdued and it is delicious. A VERY drinkable party beer, without the criminally high alcohol content of some winter brews. Buy it. DRINK IT.

Rating: 4.5/5

Samuel Adams Winter Favorites 2013

Brewery: Samuel Adams (Boston, MA)
ABVs:

This variety pack has something to offer for every kind of beer lover (except the kind that hates Sam Adams). It isn’t very innovative or Earth-shattering, but it’s a safe bet for a holiday gathering.

Juniper IPA: Floral with a standard hop content. An enjoyable, fragrant IPA. 3.5/5
Cherry Chocolate Bock: Not my thing. Tastes like Cherry Coke beer. I like Cherry Coke, and this is certainly an interesting direction to take a beer, but…a little too sweet for my preference. 2.5/5
Boston Lager: Solid beer but this isn’t relevant to Winter, so I won’t rate it right now.
Winter Lager: Another solid lager, but not particularly “wintry” or memorable. 3/5
White Christmas: Has a nice spiced kick to it, but nothing extraordinary. Pales in comparison to some other spiced beers on this list. 3.5/5
Old Fezziwig Ale: Accessible, drinkable, somewhat interesting. Best in the Sam Adams box. 4/5

The 2013 Winter selection has no shortage of delicious and festive offerings, perfect for cozying up to the hearth or for partying with friends, family, neighbors, and/or strangers (if you pick the right beer, everyone is your friend). With ratings mostly hovering in the 3s and 4s, it’d be hard for you to blunder your way into a bad beer selection this year—given that you avoid the Saranac, that is. To cover all your bases, you might even want to buy them all.

What are your favorite seasonal beers? Share with us in the comments!

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