The Decline of Winter Beer

by Tom LeeWinter Beer

When autumn rolls around you have to take the good with the bad. The air acquires a crisp chill, the leaves begin to rust, and you begin to catch unexpected hints of wood smoke as you move about the neighborhood. I find all of those things very pleasant, but they come at a price: awful beer. Well alright, not awful. A lot of people really like Octoberfest beers, but to me they’re more of a cultural duty than a product I enjoy drinking. Sickly sweet, cloyingly malty — ugh. I appreciate all that the Germans have done for us, beer-wise, and I don’t want to give offense, so I try not to complain too bitterly. Besides, I enjoy garishly-hopped ales, so who am I to judge those who enjoy things at the other end of the big beer spectrum? I’m willing to grit my teeth, grab the last few sixpacks of Oberon and wait for the end of the season.

The problem is that the season doesn’t seem to end any more. It used to be that I could look forward to the winter beers. This was the season for bold editions of subtle styles. And, as a pumpkin ale apologist, it was a nice chance to drink spiced beer that wasn’t kind of embarrassing. Citrus and coriander would begin to sneak into mass-market brews, which could live peacefully alongside heartier ales. It was great.

But this year the super-malted stuff seems to have become the de facto winter style; it’s as if Octoberfest lasts all goddamn winter. One might reasonably ask what the point is of having a seasonal style that doesn’t contrast with the style of the preceding season. As far as I can tell the motivation for all of this is to get the alcohol percentage up. Beers with names like “Winter Warmer” give the game away: these brewers are after that pleasing esophageal heat, and who gives a damn if it tastes like molasses before it gets there. Some even go so far as to introduce smoked ingredients into the mix — as if the idea of a cozy wood fire is so irresistable that drinkers wish they could put it in their mouths, like toddlers chewing on a favorite toy.

This trend would be fine if it didn’t crowd out the wits, goldens and and spiced lagers that I prefer around this time of year, but at many craft brewers — who typically offer a single seasonal — it seems to have done just that. Despite keeping my eyes peeled, the only candidate beers I’ve come across are Bell’s Winter White, which was uncharacteristically underwhelming; Southampton’s Double White, which was overwhelming (and not a seasonal, I don’t think); and the aforementioned Sam Winter Lager, which is good but not distinctive. That’s three beers making a lonesome stand against dozens and dozens of syrupy concoctions with “elf” in their names.

But I suppose I’m being a bit silly. It’s not as if a person living in any reasonably big city can’t get their preferred style of beer at whatever time of year they’d like. But I’m the sort of sap who really enjoys/is suckered in by seasonal branding. I really like the idea of winter beers — it’s just that I increasingly can’t stand the actual beer.

21 responses to “The Decline of Winter Beer

  1. Wit is for summer. Porter is for Winter.

  2. If you can find a bottle on the East Coast, I’d recommend trying Alaskan’s Smoked Porter. You may still hate it, but at least you can say you’ve reviewed the best of the genre and still found it lacking.

    Cheers!

  3. verplanck colvin

    Heh, I wouldn’t suggest trying <a href="http://www.beerhunter.com/documents/19133-000100.html&quot;.Samichlaus, then. Or J.W. Lees Harvest Ales.

    You’re talking to the guy at the other end of the spectrum; IPAs increasingly turn me off. I mean, how hard is it to throw 7 tons on hops into a vat of mediocre wort? Quite often hops hides an inferior malt profile of a beer. Malt, on the other hand, is fragile. You need to know what you’re doing in order to make a delicious beer when there’s only one key variable. I don’t drink vast quantities of the stuff (usually I’ll have a few half pints at the bar), but because of it’s higher alcohol content, I really don’t need more than that anyway. I also drink it slower, savoring it more than I do drinking hefe’s in the summer.

    I don’t really think it’s modern marketing that’s bringing the maltier/more alcoholic beers to the fore; it’s traditional styles and culture that are increasingly being adapted by craft brewers. We’re leaving the old days of being “Budweiser nation” behind, and fully appreciating all of what beer has to offer.

    Do you really have a hard time finding lighter beers in the winter? I feel kinda bad, you should come up to Vermont sometime and look at a beer list like this. I’m headed there tonight, as a matter of fact. I’ll raise a glass of a sour flemish red beer to you. I’ll probably need a buffer after hitting the Lees a couple times.

  4. I agree with PSP. Wheat beer and winter spices don’t go together — at least not in the case of Sam Adams Winter Lager.

  5. psp: I disagree, although on a relatively subtle basis. I’d say weissbiers are for summer, while witbiers are for winter. Both are wheat-based, of course, but the latter always seems much more substantial and complex to me.

    And I don’t mean to object to porters — I love that style — it’s just that I think things have gotten a bit out of hand. I used to love porters, but now I tend avoid ones I’m not familiar with because they’re so often completely over-the-top.

    KCinDC: the Sam Winter Lager isn’t a wheat beer (although of course that fact probably won’t change your not liking it). I disagree in principle, too: a lot of wheat styles have clove notes simply due to fermentation; and of course a lot of weisses benefit from citrus, which in turn can benefit from coriander.

  6. Whoops — badly-chosen display name. This comment and the last one are from Tom, the author of the post.

  7. On the porters: what really turned me off was buying back-to-back sixes of the Red Hook “Winter Hook” beer, and then Dominion’s Baltic Porter (which, admittedly, I should’ve seen coming). Both were syrupy and unpleasant, and all the worse for dealing with them back-to-back.

  8. You need Anchor Steam Christmas Beer (though it is probably too late to find it; it sells from late November throught the end of the year). Yum.

  9. The Anchor Steam Christmas Beer is good, yeah. I still have a couple bottles in the fridge that I’m rationing out for myself.

    Brasserie Dupont’s Avec Les Bons Voeux, though I don’t think it’s explicitly a seasonal beer, is also excellent. It’s subtly spiced; works well as a winter beer.

  10. Midwest Product

    I believe Sierra Nevada also makes a Christmas Beer.

    Also, since you’re already a fan of Oberon, I would seriously recommend gettting your hands on some of Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale. It’s not a winter beer per se, but it is a really, really good beer.

  11. I appreciate the suggestion, MP, but trust me: me and Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale go way back. There’s nothing I’m happier to see on tap, and aside from maybe Hitachino Nest, I can’t think of a more consistently excellent multi-style brewery.

  12. Oberon is one of my all time favorite beers. EVER. Bell’s is brewed in Kalamazoo, home to my alma mater Western Michigan University. It meant finals were coming but also, just beyond that, summer. It’s been a dream come true to start getting that stuff down here.

    If you can find a Lager of the Lakes, snap it up. They also have a Christmas Ale that I had when I was home but I haven’t seen it around here. It was pretty good.

  13. verplanck colvin

    hey, my comment approved yet?

  14. verplanck: sorry about that. I’ve gone and approved the comment. That definitely is a fine-looking list — any place with Brooklyn’s Flemish Gold and Allagash on tap is likely to keep me happy. And yeah, count me as a fan of sour ale, too — now *there’s* a style that could use some popularizing.

  15. Hmm, I guess I’m thinking of some other Sam seasonal, not the Winter Lager. Ignore my comment, then.

  16. KCinDC: they do make a “cranberry lambic” which tastes sort of wheaty (and is among the most vile things I’ve ever had to drink).

  17. As far as I can tell the motivation for all of this is to get the alcohol percentage up.

    Maybe this is part of the motivation, but a bigger part is that beer producers are still feeling the hit of increased global hops prices. I started noticing this back in the spring, even, where a lot of breweries’ “seasonal” started being much maltier than hoppier, and it’s down both to low hops yields the last year or two and a huge fire ~a year ago in a hops warehouse in Washington state. Because hops takes two years or more to produce after the vines are planted, they haven’t been able to bring additional capacity online yet, but the next year should see a gradual re-introduction of hoppier beers and more appropriate seasonal brews.

    And: been burned enough times to classify pretty much all Baltic Porters as crimes against humanity/beer. Yeeesh.

  18. Pingback: Beer Friday : Porch Dog

  19. Agreed on Bell’s Winter White: a bafflingly awful beer from a typically terrific brewery.

    My go-to winter beer is the Brooklyn Chocolate Stout. Really delicious (not too chocolatey) and at 10-10.6% it will keep you warm indeed.

    This past autumn I thought the Dogfish Punkin was pretty good, especially if you have a thing for pumpkin ale. I haven’t seen it around lately, but you might still be able to get it; otherwise, keep an eye out next fall.

  20. Pingback: Oberon Arrives, Productivity Wanes « The Internet Food Association

  21. Pingback: Oberon Arrives, Productivity Wanes | kashwaynepromotion.com

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