Brewsday: Great Lakes Brewery Winter Ale, guest-starring Ebeneezer Scrooge

Happy Christmas countdown, everyone!  We’re one week closer to the big day, and it’s getting to look a lot like the Yuletide season around here.  If there’s one thing to help you get in the mood for Christmas, it’s the merry sight of heaps of snow falling from the sky, freshening up everything and making the world white and clean and fresh for just a little while.

Yes, delightful snow.  With the shoveling, and the salting, and the forgetting to salt and instead flying sideways across the driveway and landing hard on that part of your knee with no padding to protect it.  And the lying in the snow, for a few precious seconds, to ponder the sweetness of pure agony and trying not to swear too loud in front of the neighbors.

Oh yes indeed, it’s winter and it’s in full swing, a fact that seems less and less delightful as time wears on.  Yes, it’s delightful when you’re standing at the kitchen window with a hot cup o’ something, in a red sweater with some kind of white snowflake pattern on it; no, it’s not as delightful when you’re driving uphill on frozen pavement, being educated on the fundamental flaw in the phrase “all-season tires.”

You know what I mean, Ebeneezer?

I beg your pardon, were you addressing me?  Did I perhaps stray through the wrong door and arrive in a factory for warmed-over 1990s stand-up comedy?  Your hot air may warm the room, but pardon me if I would rather burn coal – its cost is nowhere near as dear as enduring your prattle.

Exactly!  The holidays are a stressful time, and even the cheeriest among us can find it difficult to deal with the bitter, nasty cold.  That’s why seasonal beers at Christmas have an importance all their own, to add a bit of fun, offer up some interesting character, and — if we’ve been very, very good — knock us flat on our asses.

Enter:  The Winter Warmer.  Winter Warmers are a category of beer that are malt-heavy, sweet and naturally higher than alcohol than other brews.  You’ll generally find them to be big, heavy-duty, aromatic and flavorful enough beverages with a lot going on:  Hints of spice, touches of fruit and nuts, strong noses and long finishes.  These are complicated beers, touched with all kinds of notes to deliver a rich flavor…

Can you truly be serious!  I had thought that anyone from a nation civilized enough to keep Her Majesty the Queen on its currency might have some semblance of sense, but alas to see how far the colonies have fallen.  Indeed!  To imagine that a Winter Warmer could be made with any adjunct beyond the four most basic ingredients!

…depending on what part of the world you’re from.  Traditional English ales of this type are actually sweet malt beers, brewed dark but otherwise unflavored.  North American varieties have been more free in adding wrinkles, likely in a bid to add value by eliminating subtlety.  Even the most basic Winter Warmer is a strong experience, but it never hurts to amp things up a little more, does it?

Well, that brings us to Great Lakes Brewery’s Winter Ale, my first foray into this whole high-alcohol world.  I’ve actually been looking at it on the shelf for the last couple of weeks, standing in its dark glass that could easily be mistaken for a bottle of wine, embossed simply with holiday graphics that remind me of 1970’s-era Woolworth’s.  The promise of the bottle is very simple:  Strong beer flavored with orange peel and spices, going on to detail honey, cinnamon and ginger as the big influences you should expect.

It’s not kidding around, not on any count.

Winter Ale pours out as a nice, reddish-yellow color, producing a reasonably stiff head that holds up long enough to get a taste of it.  The carbonation hangs around too, keeping the beer relatively bright given the weighty flavors being brought to bear.  You don’t catch all of them at first, because the beer’s nose isn’t particularly apparent, especially when it’s cold.  Let it set up in room temperature for a few minutes, though, and you’ll definitely pick up the cinnamon and ginger as you’re drawing the glass (or, if you’re all-class like me, the bottle) up to your face.

On first sip, malty-sweetness is the most dominant flavor, but it’s quickly backed up with a spicy finish that stays with you.  It adds up, too, so that even while the first blush of the beer is quite sweet, the gingery aftertaste is still with you to balance it out.  As a beer that’s 6.2%, I didn’t find a strong alcohol flavor to it at all — there’s too much else going on to even notice it, until I had the warm happy feeling in my tummy halfway through the bottle.  Winter warmer, indeed.

That said, if you’re looking for a delicate exploration of a subtle brew, you’re in the wrong place.  Winter Ale is boldness backed up by boldness, and while that’s the perfect kind of drink to accompany your toes coming back to life after you’ve shoveled the walk, it’s not one you’re likely to stay with once you’ve gotten warm.  The cinnamon-ginger finish hangs around a lot longer than it should, which is pleasant while you’re drinking the beer, but a bit much when you’re still tasting it twenty minutes later.  It’s an ale you drink slowly not because you want to, but because you kind of have to — it’s got that kind of heft.

Which is my backwards way of recommending Great Lakes Brewery Winter Ale, if only for the enjoyable introduction it offers to the world of Winter Warmers, during the time of year when we could all definitely use them.  It isn’t a slight beverage by any means, and you may find that you’re good after the first one and you’re ready for a nap.  On the other hand, it’s different, flavorful, appropriate to the season and well worth the value for the price tag.

It’s less than three dollars a serving!  Why… oh… why didn’t we get more?  Forgive me, fans; forgive me!  Forgive me, fans; forgive me!

Rating: 3 Ebeneezers out of 5

  • Kristie

    You feel all burdened by winter…I’d kill to see a snowflake that wasn’t actually a snowflake shaped cookie being stuffed into an obese child’s mouth while their parents polish their shotguns and talk about “the blacks” getting the vote. Ugh. Texas.

  • Mike

    How would you like both? We like to call it “The Prairies.”

  • Choosy Beggar Tina

    I whole heartedly agree with both Mike and Ebeneezer. At first it seemed a bit too spiced for me – more like a cross between beer and mulled wine. But then after the first 500 mL I totally got into it teehee…..

  • Nanco

    Winter has arrived where I live (-30 and a ton of snow ) and we don’t have this beer in our beer stores. Is that the worst of both worlds?

    • Mike

      That is a crying shame, because while you’d have had a hard time getting through the whole bottle — it really is pretty robust — you definitely would’ve been warmed.