beer column

Apparently I am over my seasonal denial and willing to admit that it’s not summer any more.  So I guess it's time to talk about winter seasonal beers.

As you may recall, I’m not at all a fan of the heavy-handed use of vanilla in winter ales.  I find that cloying and annoying.

Vanilla isn’t a traditional winter ale flavouring.  Spicing beers is fairly traditional – before the wide usage of hops to bitter beer it used to be herbs and spices and tree bark that were used.  It was a natural progression from there to add some spices to a nice winter ale, but these spices tended to be nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice.

Vanilla is a recent trend, and seems to have really caught on here in the Lower Mainland.  For those who, like me, aren’t big fans of the vanilla trend, there are more traditional winter ales, and other experimental ales around, in a variety of styles and flavours.

One such beer is the Postmark Red Winter Ale.  The new brewer at Postmark, Dominic Giraldes, wanted to offer a Belgian beer for the winter season.  This one is a “smash”, or single malt, single hopped beer with Belgian yeast that brings out fruit flavours in the beer.  5.5 ABV, 23 IBUs, so it isn’t going to hit you over the head with alcohol, or hops.  The yeast is what shines in this beer.

There is no hard and fast rule surrounding what can be considered a winter seasonal beer.  Some people think a white IPA is a winter beer.

But in general winter beers tend to be richer, sweeter and darker roasted, sometimes quite boozy!  Big and bold, a common thread is maltiness.  Generally speaking, even a hoppier winter seasonal will have a strong malt profile.
I think what people look for in a winter beer is one that makes you feel cozy and warm.  Higher alcohol content often helps that feeling along!

We’ve got winter ales that offer spiciness, barleywines that are complex and very strong, stouts and porters that offer roasty and toasty flavours, sometimes chocolate or coffee, dunkelweizen and weizenbocks, the dark wheat beers with clove and banana notes, and doppelbocks, those strong roasty German lagers as examples of the depth and breadth of winter seasonal beers.  Then there’s the Sahti, a Finnish beer made with juniper, and the white IPAs and Belgian blondes.

I also find that, moreso than with other styles, quite a few breweries change their recipes every year for their winter ales.  Some, like Anchor Steam’s Christmas ale, also change labels every year.  This adds to the excitement - you just never know what you're going to get!

Because many of the winter ales are high alcohol, they can be a good choice for cellaring.  If you find one you really like, and it happens to be 8% or above, you could buy a few extra bottles to sock away in a cool, dark place for a year or two.

A great way to try some different winter beers is to purchase one or both of the beer advent calendars available in the Lower Mainland – both contain 24 different beers, many of which are winter ales and winter seasonal beers and are available at liquor stores now.

The Snowcase features 24 different Phillips beers, including exclusives and rarities.  There will also be a blog beginning December 1st for you to interact with, at, with back stories and tasting notes, as well as feedback from drinkers.

The Craft Crossing (called the Mystery Box last year) will feature 6 staple beers from each of Parallel 49 and Central City, plus six new beers for the season from each of them.  The beers will include sours, bocks, stouts, pale ales and winter ales.

There is also the Spinnakers bomber box for the 12 days of Christmas – a different 650ml bomber for each of the days.

Another option is to find a winter ale festival.  If you feel like doing a little bit of travelling, there are Winter Ale festivals in Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, Washington in December.  If you can wait until January, there are festivals in Port Townsend and Ellensberg Washington.  Or just head up to Whistler this weekend for the beer events at Cornucopia – in particular Brewed: The BC Craft BrewersGuild Winter Beer Market on Sunday at 2:00 PM. for a chance to taste many of the province’s winter beer offerings.

Beer Picks:

For the winter season, I give you a winter ale, a dark wheat beer and an oat porter:

Howe Sound Father John’s Winter Ale – available in 1 litre bottles.  7% winter warmer.  This rich and malty ale has vanilla notes, but it also has ginger, nutmeg and molasses. 

Powell Street Dunkelweizen - a German-style dark wheat beer with rich chocolate malt flavours are accented by notes of clove and banana derived from the use of a traditional Bavarian yeast – available at the brewery by the glass, in 650 ml bombers and for growler fills.  6%

Four Winds Oat Porter – this fall and winter seasonal employs oats for a smooth and creamy mouthfeel, while chocolate malts provide a cocoa coffee flavour.  5.5%, available at the tasting room and in 4 packs at the liquor store.

On the show, I got to give away an enormous (6L) La Fin du Monde, graciously provided to me for that purpose by Unibroue via their parent company, Sleemans.

Here's a photo of Gloria Macarenko and I for scale:

photo from @CBCGloria twitter

There are only 50 of these gigantic bottles available in BC.  And the only place you can spend your $149 to get one is the LDB on Cambie Street (2395 Cambie).  There are also bottles of Unibroue 17 Grand Reserve available.  Those retail for $199.  November 19th is the magical date on which they will be available.  Good luck!

And finally, a photo of the happy winner, Sam!

photo from @cedarlodge on twitter


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