What to Drink This Week: Winter Beer

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I’m going to lay it out there right now:  I do not GET winter.

I understand it scientifically.  I am wise to the processes, that winter is the simple inevitable consequence of time and orbit, polar angles and the motion of huge bodies through vast lanes in space, varying the approach of sunlight just so slightly that we can go from tanning happily to being buried up to our necks in frozen water falling from the sky.  I can comprehend that winter is merely summer only colder, thanks to a quirk of physics that spun our planet just so, creating a complex and intricate climate that results in my pants being salt-stained for four months every year.

In the vast unfeeling mechanics of creation, I’m sure that the particular cruelties of a Southern Ontario winter rank slightly below “there is lots of hydrogen” on the list of interesting facts.  But when I’m shoveling through a three-foot drift that manifests itself specifically in my driveway after a 2-inch snowfall, it is extremely difficult not to think that, perhaps, this vast unfeeling machine is specifically out to get me.

Take this winter, for instance!  Two whole snowfalls in all of December!  Kind of pretty nice most of the time!  And just when I began to believe that this is when I’ll start to enjoy the colder months, that winter isn’t all that bad, along it comes and jams its icy wet finger in my ear, shouting, WHAM-BAM-UP-YOURS HOW ABOUT SOME NICE BLIZZARDS EVERYWHERE HUH?  ENJOY YOUR FREE TIME SPENT SCRAPING PAVEMENT WITH A SHOVEL!  How can that be anything but deliberate?  How can that be anything but cold-blooded (by definition, I suppose) savagery inflicted with unkind purpose?

CREEP.

Insane ramblings of a man pushed beyond his limit of property maintenance?  Paranoid delusions of a mind already shattered by seasonal-whatever-thing-disorder?  So you may say. But we live in a world where people can video chat with each other on their cell phones if they’re getting decent service that day, and the finest minds of our time are discovering distant extra-solar planets at such a rate that we’re starting to get bored with it already — and yet despite all of our amazing progress, I could find no comfort.

Until recently, when I remembered the miracle of Winter Beer.

Where I have anxiety attacks and emotional internet outbursts about winter, the religious thinkers of old had shrugging, squinting into the gloom, and brewing.  Take that, modern life!  Retaliatory alcohol manufacturing is the kind of classical thinking that I wish we had more of, and it’s no surprise that more and more of it is turning up on store shelves.

We’ve talked about Winter Ale here before, but in the couple of years since, the category has really started to take off.  Where it was a novelty when I first encountered it, these days there are no end of options for Winter Beer to choose from… and most of them are so good.

But before we get too far, let’s get back to those great Medieval innovators.  There are all kinds of stories floating around about their motivations, with tales of Saturnalia and Vortigern and churches plying their flocks with beer, all of which are colorful and interesting and unlikely.  What is known, though, is that in a world before hops, brewers were apt to use anything within reach to preserve their creations — herbs, spices, or even barks.  In the winter, when fresher ingredients weren’t as handy, these dried elements became even more important, resulting in heavily “spiced” beverages.

Consequently, winter beers were very much a git ‘er done kind of solution, free from the carefully manicured consistency of warmer days.  They’re big and flavorful, complicated (occasionally to the extreme) and full.  These are not beers to open and chug after you’ve cleaned out the garage, unless you are prepared to feel like you just ate an entire turkey; rather, they are ones that do best in gigantic mugs, with their minimal froth and rich amber colors, sipped over time.

So, Winter Beer:  Flavorful and unusual beer to warm the palate on cold days.  Lovely, right?  Good job, monks.  But if that wasn’t great enough, those early pioneers took it all the way — not only are Winter Beers richer and more full, but they’re also stronger.   They can run anywhere up to 7% ABV, giving them the slightly hefty kick and caloric boost that really helps stave off the urge to collapse in a snow drift and just die.

Recommendation:

St. Peter’s Winter AleAt 6.5% ABV and a 500 mL bottle, this is the Winter Warmer defined.  A dark ruby when poured, its hoppiness and malted sweetness combine to make a surprisingly chocolate flavor, which oddly enough never gets tired.  If you’re ready to dive into Winter Beers, this is a great place to start — truly seasonal, rich and complicated, St. Peter’s does everything it sets out to do.

Plus, the bottle is awesome.  Drinking from it feels like swigging from a medicinal flask in the 1890’s, but without, you know, the horror of living in the 1890s.

As we bear down into the back half of January, there’re still a whole lot of gray skies, wet socks and freezing nights ahead.  Vague marketing aside, Winter Beer really does hail from an old tradition, one that combines bold flavors with ballsy alcohol content to tackle that most basic of human problems:  Finding a way to get through the friggin’ season.  If you’ve joined in the ritual before, it’s never too late to try it again; if you’ve never tried it before, this is the time.

  • http://polwig.com polwig

    I understand the winter angst but in some ways I love it. It allows me to eat more, need blubber to keep me warm, and I do not have to worry about bikini season for a while. The winter ale helps too.

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  • Bill

    I would LOVE that Great Lakes Winter Ale bottle if you still have it and would be willing to part with it.