Every craft brewery makes a round of seasonal brews and beginning in November, winter beers and Christmas ales become available.
Todd Walther, beer lover and manager of Weinbach Avenue Liquor Locker in Evansville, Ind. (where they sell more than 400 beers), explained what makes winter brews different.
"In the summer everything is brighter: the sun, colors, everything, so beers tend to have brighter flavors, even brighter labels," he said. "They tend to be very citrusy, hoppy and bitter, lighter in body. As the weather and skies get darker, brewers start to use darker fruits, darker roast malts and the sugars come through. A lot of the winter stuff is sweeter and a lot of brewers are using traditional seasonings like nutmeg, coriander, darker fruits, vanilla, blackberry. You can get a good, hoppy beer in the winter but it's going to be different."
Walther makes it his business to be familiar with the product he's selling.
"I read all the information on the seasonal beers to see what the breweries are doing and putting in it, then research it more online," he said. "A lot of people who come in know what they like, and I try to know all the beers so I can guide them to it. I personally traditionally like the fall and winter beers more than spring and summer because in spring everybody's doing the citrus and hops; you really have to do something different with a summer beer to catch my attention. Winter beers are more diverse."
The difference between a winter beer in general and a Christmas ale, according to Walther, is the inclusion of spices. They are also often higher in alcohol, giving a warm feeling in the throat to complement the warmth of spices and roasted malt. Winter beers with high ABV (alcohol by volume) are often referred to as "winter warmers."
"Whatever spices go well with a certain style will be found in the Christmas beers," said Walther.
"Also, I've noticed a lot more wheat beers this winter using darker roasted malt. Shiner Holiday Cheer is a really good one."
Christmas ales are produced in many countries, from here in the United States to Belgium and Germany.
A few of the Christmas Ales available include:
-- Shiner Holiday Cheer: A sweet and malty dunkelweizen, or dark beer, brewed with wheat. Brewed with peaches and pecans for a fruity flavor. By Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas. Walther especially appreciates this one. "When I tried it, it was one of the best beers I'd had in a year. I love it," he said. "Peaches are an unusual fruit to use this time of year, so good on them for waiting to feature it in a winter beer." 5.4 percent ABV
-- Corsendonk Christmas Ale: Belgian dark beer, bottle fermented, sweet with dark roasted malts and brewed with coriander. 8.5 percent ABV
-- Schlafly Christmas Ale: By Schlafly in St. Louis. Caramel malts and honey with orange peel, juniper berries, ginger, cardamom and cloves. Slightly higher alcohol at 8.0 percent ABV. Shlafly jokingly (or not so much) claims that "the booze" in higher-alcohol winter beers helps "smooth the rougher edges of enjoying each others' company" during this time of gatherings. So true.
-- Fat Head's Holly Jolly: Ginger, honey and cinnamon combine with a sweet malt flavor. 7.4 percent ABV
-- Sam Adams White Christmas -- An unusually light Christmas beer, a white wheat beer with German pils malt and holiday spices -- cinnamon, orange peel and nutmeg. 5.8 percent ABV
Breckenridge Brewery even offered a recipe for pork chops with Christmas Ale.
PORK CHOPS WITH CHRISTMAS ALE
Source: Adapted from Breckenridge Brewery
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
15 ounce tomato sauce
2 cups Breck Brew Christmas Ale
2 tablespoons vinegar
4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup butter
1 tablespoon celery seed
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 dash hot pepper sauce
8 pork loin chops
1. Combine all ingredients except pork chops in a 2-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes, stirring frequently.
2. Sear pork chops on grill, about 4 minutes each side. Baste the chops liberally with sauce and return to grill. Over low heat, cook chops 15-20 minutes or until done, turning every five minutes, basting with sauce before each turn.
3. If it's freezing, this may be done under a low broiler. Watch carefully to keep chops from burning after the sauce is added.