Admittedly, it’s a funny thing about winter beers. There’s a reason beer sells like mad all summer long; it makes for ideal cold refreshment when the mercury’s high. But when temps dip, brewers bust out “winter warmers,” or beers that are typically brewed to higher gravities, meaning punchier in the alcohol by volume (ABV) department so as to fight off Jack Frost. The biggest bummer is that we don’t get to enjoy them en masse at Pioneer Square, for the second pandemic year running, as the joyous Holiday Ale Fest isn’t slated to return until 2022.
Christmas beers have been around since before Christmas. For millennia, agrarians celebrated the winter solstice by brewing beers made heavier with extra grains, as well as fruits and spices. From the Romans gorging themselves on strong brews during Saturnalia to the Vikings drinking themselves blotto during Yule, humans throughout history took their winter intoxication seriously, so as to commune with deities and supernatural spirits. And since nowhere else is as spirited as Portland, it’s time to dive into some of Oregon’s wintry traditions and some new twists as well.
Winter warmers are hardly an Oregon thing, though we do it with a broader range than possibly anywhere else. Given that Santa manages to coast around the world in a single night, he’d be well served going to bottle shops and picking up Britain’s Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome, generously robed in malts connoting sticky pudding. In Austria, Samichlaus is brewed once a year and spends a full calendar maturing. Let’s not forget the Belgians, who offer various Noel beers such as d’Achouffe’s N’ice Chouffe and Dubuisson’s Scaldis Prestige. Taking cues from their European brethren, where Christmas markets abound and glühwein (warm, mulled wine) is commonplace but glühbier can also be found, Portland’s Cascade Brewing offers warmed, sweetened, spiced versions of Baked Apple Sour (“Mulled Apple Sour”), and the beer by which calendars are measured—Glueh Kriek. Alas, those are only served at Cascade Barrel House and require some preparation for enjoyment at home. So, for those on Santa’s high-key nice list, here are five local beers that make good gifts, festive dinner companions, or gifts to thyself.
Style: Hoppy Red Ale
This year marks the 15th anniversary of Widmer Brrr, the Northwest-style red ale. By calling itself a hoppy red versus a red IPA, they’re letting us know the emphasis is still more malt-forward than those three magical letters would’ve implied. Yes, it abounds with hops, chiefly Widmer’s signature blend called Alchemy and mega-OG American hop icon Cascade, so the beer packs plenty of citrus character. Coupled with the caramel malts and a bit of astringency from dark chocolate malts, the resulting beer smacks of that delicious brûléed rosemary grapefruit at The Hazel Room for a taste of how the Best Coast does Xmas.
Bourbon Barrel Abominable
Brewery: Hopworks Urban Brewery
Style: Winter Ale
Playing in the same sandbox as Brrr, HUB’s Abominable Winter Ale is also a Cascade hop-focused ale on a caramel malt pedestal—though it’s the Centennial hops that spice this one up a bit. The original Abominable is celebrating a decade of being unlike winter ales spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg or the like, and tiptoes in at 7.3 percent ABV. The bourbon-aged treatment, meanwhile, inflates that to over 11 percent, and wraps up this Yeti of a beer in an even more hibernation-inducing warm coat made of vanilla and leather imparted by the oaky Kentucky spirit. Remember, this guy’s now available in cans for those who keep their stockings not on their mantel, but in their fridge.
Brewery: Deschutes Brewery
Style: Winter Warmer
Just as HUB managed to ameliorate Abominable by aging it in bourbon barrels, that’s what Deschutes has done for the first time with their annual favorite, Jubelale, by aging it in red wine oak barrels. The Bend brewery further embellished its signature winter warmer by adding cherries and vanilla. The result is that the base beer, decadently malty like liquid toffee pudding and already nearly 7 percent alcohol, is brightened up with the cherry juice, softened with the vanilla, and fleshed out with the noticeable jammy wine notes. It may not be flambéed like cherries jubilee, but it’s no less comforting and warming.
Dwellers on the Threshold
Brewery: Threshold Brewing & Blending
Style: Dessert Stout
A collaboration brew at Culmination, this pastry-sweet stout makes a lot of sense given that it’s the co-creation of Polish-inspired Threshold. Polish-expat Jarek Szymanski and Culmination founder Tomas Sluiter teamed up to brew the ultimate liquid replica of classic Delicje cookies. Where America has those whack-and-unwrap orange-flavored chocolate slices, Delicje biscuits are topped with orange jam and enrobed in chocolate. Brewed with cara cara oranges, molasses, vanilla beans, and cocoa nibs, this is a gift wrapped in aluminum.
Winter Coat 2022 (and Barrel Aged Winter Coat 2021)
Brewery: Stormbreaker Brewing
Style: Winter Warmer
ABV: 7.5% (and 8%)
Winter Coat is Stormbreaker’s annual winter warmer, essentially an imperial brown ale built on chocolate malts and English hops, which gets tweaked each passing year. After its initial release in 2015, subsequent years have seen the recipe fruited and sometimes spiced. Last season’s batch, Winter Coat 2021 (because most of winter occurs after the holidays), saw additions of tangerine and cocoa nibs in the vein of aforementioned Dwellers. That batch is now getting a highly limited re-release in bottles after hibernating all year in a blend of whiskey and Pinot Noir barrels. For a truly PNW vibe, Winter Coat 2022 gets its fruit in the form of blackberries, plus some orange peel. The result is still primarily a big, bold, honied brown ale that warms like its namesake.