Top Winter Beers

By Bob Barnes

The Best Dark Beers to Drink in Winter

Brewing has historically been a specialty of regions where winters are harsh and grains are grown, like Germany and the British Isles. For centuries, brewers have made seasonal beers for winter that are fuller in body and maltier than standard styles.

Some are festively spiced, others are simply turbocharged versions of year-round recipes. But all feature that extra richness of texture that comes with heaping helpings of barley malt.

Winter warmers have less water in the mix, delivering more nutrition and higher alcohol content than typical summer quenchers.

To best banish winter’s chill, serve GAYOT’s Best Winter Beers no colder than 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which is also ideal for showcasing their delicious flavors. Serving “ice cold” suppresses flavor; a good strategy only if you’re not keen to really “taste” your beer.

And if you want even more strong-flavored brews to savor, check out these Top Sipping Beers.

> The selections are presented in alphabetical order.

1. Abita Mardi Gras Bock

Abita Mardi Gras Bock

Origin: Covington, LA, USA
Beer type: Bock
Price: $8.99 for six-pack 12 oz
ABV: 6.5%
Brewed by: Abita Brewing Company

Abita Brewing Company’s first seasonal brew, Abita Bock is available January through March.

Abita uses mild and aromatic Perle hops and British pale and caramel malts to achieve its mild and toasty flavor. Even though the makers of Abita call this beer a simple Bock, it resembles a German Maibock in its high malt content, full body and slightly higher alcohol content. This beer is very popular in Louisiana, especially during Mardi Gras season.

2. Affligem Noël Christmas Ale

Affligem Noël Christmas Ale

Origin: Opwijk, Belgium
Beer type: Belgian Strong Dark Ale
Price: $13 for 750 ml
ABV: 9%
Brewed by: Affligem

This reddish amber ale, spiced with sweet orange peels, anise and caraway, also delivers flavors of toasted malt and dark fruits such as prune and cherry.

An aroma of cocoa, cinnamon and clove adds to the celebratory vibe. Note that the flavors will intensify as this beer warms, so take your time to enjoy the evolving flavors as you sip. Given the strong ale’s high carbonation, it’s best to drink it from a goblet-style glass. The bulbous shape will help trap the scent and flavors while maintaining a lively head.

3. Alaskan Winter

Alaskan Winter

Origin: Juneau, AK, U.S.A.
Beer type: Ale, Old Ale
Price: $9 for six-pack 12 oz.
ABV: 6.4%
Brewed by: Alaskan Brewing Company

Available only October through December, this beer is based on an historical recipe brewed on Captain Cook’s ship in 1778 as he searched for the Northwest Passage.

When creating the beverage, Cook added spruce tips to augment the brew and add some vitamin C. Like the famous English explorer, Alaskan Brewing uses glacier-fed water and locally-grown Sitka spruce tips. Brewed in the style of an English Olde Ale, the aroma and citrus character of the spruce is complemented by rich malt, toffee and caramel. The label is a tribute to the 3,000 bald eagles that congregate among the evergreen trees on the shores of the Chilkat River for the last large salmon run before winter.

4. Deschutes Jubelale

Deschutes Jubelale

Origin: Bend, OR, U.S.A.
Beer type: Ale
Price: $8.99 for six-pack 12 oz.
ABV: 6.7%
Brewed by: Deschutes Brewery

Expect an earthy aroma, nut brown hue and a comingling of West Coast hops, brown sugar, candied dark fruits, baking spices and a good dose of malty flavors.

The very first beer to ever be bottled by the brewery, Jubelale boasts a bold 6.7 percent ABV, which will help warm you as the nippy chill of winter approaches.

5. Full Sail Brewing Company Wassail Winter Ale

Full Sail Brewing Company Wassail Winter Ale

Origin: Hood River, OH, U.S.A.
Beer type: Ale
Price: $8 for six-pack 12 oz.
ABV: 7.2%
Brewed by: Full Sail Brewing Co.

Brewed by Oregon’s Full Sail Brewing Company, one of the first craft breweries in the US, this award-winning winter warmer has been ushering in the holiday season since 1988.

The flavor varies slightly from year to year, with the 2016 version featuring Pacific Northwest hops with caramel and dark chocolate malts. The aroma of this dark brown ale shouts out malt with a touch of roast. The malt continues to shine in the full-bodied flavor with chocolaty notes and a balanced background of hops in the long-lasting finish, making this a beer that will appeal to both malt and hop lovers. The 7.2 percent ABV may surprise you, as this winter delight goes down quite smoothly.

6. Goose Island Winter Ale

Goose Island Winter Ale

Origin: Chicago, IL, U.S.A.
Beer type: American Brown Ale
Price: $8 for six-pack 12 oz.
ABV: 5.3%
Brewed by: Goose Island Beer Company

Similar to Hex Nut Brown, this brown ale was resurrected in 2015 and renamed for the season in which it is meant to be enjoyed – it’s available October through December.

When poured it delivers a long-lasting tan head and is lightly hopped with Fuggle hops that are grown for Goose Island at Elk Mountain Farm in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. It’s fortified with 2-Row, Caramel-60, Wheat, Dark Chocolate and Victory malts to give it a distinctive nutty flavor, along with chocolate and malty notes. It ends with a roasted caramel finish.

7. Mavericks Belgian Style Wit

Mavericks Belgian Style Wit

Origin: Half Moon Bay, CA, U.S.A.
Beer type: Witbier
Price: $10 for six-pack 12 oz.
ABV: 3.75%
Brewed by: Mavericks Brewing

Belgian wits are traditionally brewed with barley and wheat malt and spiced with orange peel and coriander.

This American version also throws in naked oats, Abbey Malt and a hint of lemon. Styrian Goldings, East Kent Goldings and Hallertauer Mittlefrüh noble hops work together to blend with the aforementioned spices, along with yeast esters providing hints of clove and white pepper. With a low ABV and just 122 calories, this unfiltered, easy-drinking session beer packs a surprising punch of aroma and zesty flavor.

8. Ninkasi Sleigh’r Winter Ale

Ninkasi Sleigh’r Winter Ale

Origin: Eugene, OR, U.S.A.
Beer type: Altbier
Price: $8 for six-pack 12 oz.
ABV: 7.2%
Brewed by: Ninkasi Brewing Company

Known previously as Dark Doüble Alt, this German Altbier-style brew garnered a cult-like following after its release in 2009.

Brewed with an Alt yeast but fermented at colder lagering temperatures, it has a more refined, crisp lager-like flavor than traditional ales. The deep, toasted-malt flavor from roasted barley and chocolate malts is accentuated by Nugget hops with a dry and balanced finish. Both the 60 IBU and 7.2% ABV levels are significantly higher than most Altbiers while the label artwork — a sled scorching through the snow — is inspired by Ninkasi co-founder Jaimie Floyd’s love of snowboarding.

9. Ommegang Abbey Ale

Ommegang Abbey Ale

Origin: Cooperstown, NY, U.S.A.
Beer type: Dubbel
Price: $8 for 750 ml.
ABV: 8.2%
Brewed by: Brewery Ommegang

Brewery Ommegang is located on a 135-acre former hop farm near Cooperstown, New York, the epicenter of American hop production in the 19th century.

Typical for the farmstead style, this flagship brew pours a dark red with prevailing aromas of raisins, plums and dates. Clove, sweet malt and caramel flavors help to mask the beer’s hefty 8.2 percent ABV. Like its Belgian cousins, it boasts a generous selection of spices — in this case licorice root, star anise, orange peel, coriander and cumin. A great candidate for cellaring, this ale will develop caramel, fig and currant notes with age. Bonus: It’s available year-round.

10. 21st Amendment Brewery Fireside Chat

21st Amendment Brewery Fireside Chat

Origin: San Francisco, CA, U.S.A.
Beer type: Ale
Price: $12 for six-pack 12 oz.
ABV: 7.9%
Brewed by: 21st Amendment Brewery

21st Amendment Brewery opened in 2000 and is a pioneer of packaging craft beer in cans.

This brew, first released in 2010, was its first seasonal release in a can. The appearance is dark ruby-brown with a tan head, and its toasty malt flavor is tempered with a blend of spices and cocoa nibs that doesn’t overpower. The 7.9 percent ABV also provides warmth to your palate, allowing this winter warmer to live up to the style’s name.