Winter beers are typically full-bodied, boozy affairs. This makes sense in theory: it’s cold, and why go to the trouble of securing the warmth that comes from, say, excessive layering, building a fire, or astronomically high utility bills when you could just drink something with a double-digit ABV? Plus, it’s holiday party season, and good grief are some of those shindigs boring. Trust me, a strong drink can go a long way to help you get through your fifth ugly Christmas sweater-themed gathering of the month.
There’s just one snag: some of those parties can be pretty long, and if you don’t pace yourself, you’ll end up face down in a plate full of gingerbread cookies or making an inappropriate pass under the mistletoe by the end of the night. There are only so many high-gravity holiday ales a person can have before it’s time to switch to mulled cider.
So in the spirit of moderation, this list of notable winter brews isn’t quite as lengthy as our roundup of the best and worst from fall’s offerings. Instead, here are 8 beers that we’ll be coming back to as the winter months continue, many of which are so good you only need one.
• Hopworks Urban Brewery, Motherland Imperial Russian Stout (9.8% ABV)
There are a seemingly endless number of high-gravity stouts out there with names referencing the eastern European country that gives the style its name; it can get a little confusing. This is one to seek out. It’s remarkably well integrated and easy drinking for its booze content, and with great depth of flavor. “It’s a bit like Dr. Pepper, in a good way—and just as habit forming.”
• Gigantic Brewing Company, Most Premium Russian Imperial Stout (10% ABV)
“This beer is an endeavor,” proclaimed one taster. This deservedly buzz-building SE Portland brewery doesn’t usually mess around, and here they’ve created a great example of the style that will linger on your palate even as it clouds your memory. Plus, given its limited single run and the frighteningly awesome label art from San Francisco artist Frank Kozik, it makes a great gift for someone you’re trying to liquor up!
• Lompoc Brewing Company, C-Sons Greetings (8.0% ABV)
This was one of a few we tried that fell into the “winter IPA” category, which are basically bigger, boozier IPAs designed for days where you want your beer to fight back a little. This one fought back the most: it had the most body, a wonderful hop profile without any overwhelming bitterness, and a rich boozy bite that we appreciated. Highly recommended.
• Hopworks Urban Brewery, Abominable Winter Ale (7.3% ABV)
“Smells like hops!” was the first thing I wrote down for this beer, which doesn’t speak to highly of the beers I’d been trying before. This winter IPA from HUB isn’t as heavy-hitting as Lompoc’s version, but it’s very balanced and I could drink a lot more of them, which isn’t a bad thing. There’s a reason it’s the brewery’s best selling seasonal. Also, I know from experience that the cans make excellent Christmas tree ornaments.
• Fort George Brewery, North VII (9%)
The Astoria brewery calls this a “Barrel-Aged Imperial Belgian-Inspired IPA.” Can I suggest a rule that breweries use no more than one hyphenated word when coining beer styles? Great, thanks. While the style's name might be a mouthful, this limited seasonal is dangerously easy drinking for 9%. The time spent in Kentucky bourbon barrels beautifully mellows this beer; it’s an IPA for people who like Belgian beers and a Belgian for people who like IPAs. I like both, and I can’t get enough.
• Elysian Brewing Company, BiFrost Winter Ale (7.6% ABV)
Remember what I said about needing only one of these beers? Yeah, forget that. No one will judge you for having a few of these. This beer smells like Pineapple-Orange-Guava juice, tastes of earthy, citrusy hops despite its strong malt backbone, and finishes dry enough that you want another sip immediately.
• Full Sail Brewing Company, LTD 06 Black Bock (7.0% ABV)
Want to get in on the dark winter beer game, without getting totally tanked or dropping eight bones on a 22 oz bomber? Have I got the beer for you. This edition of Full Sail’s award-winning limited lager series is dark enough to warm your jaded holiday soul, easy drinking enough that you could put away a whole six pack, and reasonably enough priced that you won’t feel bad about it. Yeah, I know it’s still 7%. Shh, no one likes a Scrooge.
• Bridgeport Brewing Company, Old Knucklehead Barleywine (9.2% ABV)
Another one for the tighter budgets. This isn’t the best barleywine you’ll ever drink, but it might be the best for under 6 bucks a 22. Right now it tastes just a bit like those fake cherry cordial chocolates. Give it a year in the cellar (or the closet, or wrapped in a knobbly sock, or whatever, it’s a six dollar bottle) and it’ll be just fine.