Winter beers

By Donald S. Gosselin

It's nearly that time. Leaves are beginning to turn, and days grow shorter and colder as the holidays approach. While nature braces herself for the icy grip of winter, so do our regional microbrewers. During this month, many a visitor to New England microbreweries will find pleasant aromas of malt and hops, and perhaps cinnamon, pumpkin, cloves and allspice, wafting from the brew kettles. It's holiday brewing time again.

Most historians agree that the idea of brewing special seasonal beers predates modern history and has its origin in the pagan celebrations of winter solstice. The practice continued into the Dark Ages, when brewing arts were widely practiced by members of religious communal orders. Indeed, monasteries were the keepers of brewing technology in medieval times, and they often functioned as the local brewery as well. Some historians believe that these monks, anxious to Christianize pagan celebrations such as the winter solstice, were responsible for the first holiday commemorative beers which were brewed to celebrate the birth of Christ. We can only guess at the type of beer monks brewed for this holiday, but most agree that it was a stronger version of their normal brew, perhaps one containing rare spices, fruit and herbs.

America received this rich heritage of holiday brewing from its British wassailing forbears. Like most other time-honored brewing practices, holiday brewing nearly became extinct in mid-twentieth century America. Thankfully, the practice has been recently revived and nurtured by our regional microbreweries and brewpubs. May the wassail bowl never again run dry.

As a rule, holiday beers break down into three general categories; strong ales including extra special bitter, old ale and barleywine; amber lagers of medium to high strength; and spiced ales or wassails prepared with ingredients as diverse as cinnamon, clove, ginger or nutmeg.

Here are just a few examples of New England's holiday beers. (No fresh examples of these beers were available at press time. Accordingly, no star ratings are given. This list also omits offerings by some of our newer microbreweries, as neither fresh examples nor tasting notes were available at press time.)

Catamount Christmas Ale by the Catamount Brewing Company of White River Junction, Vermont, is a full-flavored ale along the style of a British extra special bitter. Catamount Christmas Ale has changed little over the years and is renown for its chocolate tinged maltiness and spicy herbal hop finish.

Harpoon's Winter Warmer, by Boston's Mass. Bay Brewing Company, one of the first local holiday beers, has changed over the years. In its first inception nearly eight years ago, I found a pleasant ginger and spice complexity. Recipe tinkering in following years has yielded mixed results, but I am happy to report that last year's version was as deliciously spicy as the first.

Samuel Adam's Winter Lager by the Boston Beer Company continues to be a straightforward example of warming hops and malt, with a good dose of wheat malt thrown in. The wheat malt contributes a complex breadiness and a dense head of foam. Quaffers will find the signature hop character of Sam Adam's lager beers in the finish of this brew.

Geary's Hampshire Special Ale, by the D.L. Geary Brewing Company of Portland, Maine, is an intensely hoppy British extra special bitter. At about 7% alcohol, this ale is a warming elixir indeed. Brewed from late October until mud season, it is "available only while the weather sucks", according to the master brewer, David Geary.

Prelude Ale by Shipyard Brewing of Portland, Maine, is a limited edition British style old ale designed by master brewer Alan Pugsley. Prelude is deliciously full bodied, with hints of dried fruit and floral hops. Prelude is also quite strong. A fine reward for the snow shoveller in your family.

Many other local brewers will be producing limited holiday beers for retail sale. When in doubt, call the brewery ahead of time. If you taste a holiday beer and find it to your liking, order your supply as early as possible. These beers are in very short supply as the holidays approach. No harm in keeping these beers in the shop until mid winter, as their higher alcohol content makes them a bit more tenable than regular-strength microbrews.