So, ya lookin’ for something that warms the cockles (whatever the hell those are) of your beaten ‘n’ bruised 2020 heart and psyche? A little liquid cheer to help hammer a true SUCKFEST of a year into some vague, celebrational-ish shape? I gotcha, my sufferin’ brethren. Here are a few, just for a start. For my $$$, these are among the Top Ten winter ales made in America today and, much to the ongoing shock of all the Euro-weenies and PNW homies to whom I give this factlet, winter warmers are one of THE largest beer segments in the annual beer calendar. People DRINK this stuff, so having a few options may be a great thing.
Here are several that will Warm Cockles and win hearts…
Deschutes Brewery, Bend, Oregon: JUBELALE
America’s best winter seasonal? Since its 1988 debut, hand botted off the taps at Deschutes’ Bend pub, Jubelale has been one of the two or three most popular – dare I say, Beloved – ales of any kind made in the United States. Because of Deschutes’ almost kinky pride in tweaking everything, even if it’s fundamentally perfect as is, it has varied in color and weight and flavor, from time to time but this 2020 version – maybe because they think we all need it more – is, to me, the most sumptuous Jubel since the gorgeous 2007. Jubelale 2020 is voluptuous; gloriously, almost defiantly, malt-driven, with a deep, dark reddish, near opaque color in the glass and lush caramels, cherries, currants, plums, chocolate, and coffee on the palate. For all that, the hops are firm and assertive, wrestling those big malts to a virtual draw. The balance is extraordinary. It’s ridiculously smoooooth and compulsively drinkable, just as every Jubelale has been. But this one just feels more fleshed-out, complete, and generous. I don’t know if the Folks on Simpson decided to work extra hard at giving us all a magnificent distraction, here in the Plague Age, but that’s what they have done. Jubelale is Perfect and has been perfect more often than any beer, from any brewery, in US history. 100 Points
A new(ish) name, if not a new beer, makes this list, in the stupendous Winter Warmer from Rahr & Sons Brewing of Fort Worth, Texas. Not distributed here in my native PNW, I found out about Rahr back in 2006, just about the time this stunner debuted. I got a box in the mail from a family member who used to abet my Beer Jones and it took ONE sip to make me a Rahr Fan. I got Winter Warmer first in maybe ’09 or ’10, this time from a business associate, and was bowled over. It’s spiced but in a fairly elegant, somewhat restrained way; certainly not like some of the overbearing, cloying spice bomb ales that pass for Christmas seasonals from brewers who can’t think outside the pie/fruitcake box. It IS sweet but not excessively so, and offers up baking spices, roasted nuts, fruit leathers, a dash of flattering smoke, a roasty charred note, candied cherries, brandied plums, and a lingering finish of Fig Newtons, with a restrained hoppiness that mostly serves to drag it back from too much sweetness. The word that has come to mind in the four versions of this I’ve tasted so far is “crafty“. This is a very cleverly conceived and crafted ale that, let’s be honest, is intended to lean on your holiday pleasure buttons and does it insanely well. There is also a Bourbon-barreled version of this but everyone I’ve spoken to in Texas about getting bottles of that one has burst out laughing. It’s released and then GONE, so I’m told, so dream on…but while you’re dreaming, drink this, anywhere you can lay hands on Rahr beers. 97 Points
This is the first time I’ve ever reviewed the Boundary Bay Brewing “Cabin Fever” Winter Seasonal but don’t make too much out of that. I’ve been drinking it every year for what seems like since I was in grade school. Along with Maritime Pacific’s classic “Jolly Roger”, Pyramid’s annual crowd-pleaser, “Sno Cap”, Silver City Brewing’s “Old Scrooge”, and Fish Brewing’s “Winterfish”, Cabin Fever is one of Washington’s genuine plethora of evergreen winter ales, with a fanatical core of followers whose zeal rivals that of al Quaida, minus the gunfire. Cabin Fever is an almost shocking ale. It is unlike any other Winter Seasonal I’ve ever tasted, including the others named here. It starts with a quick burst of piney hops and a BLAST of cocoa, without any actual chocolate involved. From that eye-opener, it segues into black cherries, coffee, caramel, pecan sandies, an intimation of smokiness, plums, figs, red currants, and a partridge in a fuggen pear tree. It’s so obviously a Christmas ale that it should come with one of those shelf elves stuffed down into the bottle. You may have a bit of a tussle trying to find it, especially outside of WA state, but I’m told some online beer retailers may have it – but not for long. Dazzling beer from one of this half of America’s most shockingly underappreciated breweries. (BTW: their Barrel-aged “Old Bounder” Barleywine is, IMO, one of the US’s Top Five!) 98 Points
Sierra Nevada Brewing, Chico, California: “Celebration“
This is the ONLY beer on this list – or most other lists, for that matter – which makes any serious claim for equaling or surpassing, in some peoples’ opinions, Deschutes Jubelale. And, in certain moods, I might even agree. My compromise: lay in ample supplies of both and drink very little else from mid-October until they’re gone. Since its debut in 1991, Celebration has gone through a couple of significant metamorphoses but has been jaw-dropping whether it was as the unspecified “Ale”, with no style given, or since its rebranding as “Fresh Hopped IPA”. According to the brewery, Celebration was always brewed as an IPA, contains NO spices at all, no matter what some tongues have detected, and has been made in its present form since 1983, using yeast, water, their special grain bill, Cascade, Centennial and Chinook hops, and that’s IT. There are no infusions, additions, or flavorings. As much as anything else in the Continuum of Things You Put in Your Mouth (stop it), Celebration IS what it IS. And what it is…is immortal. For many years, before I first tasted Jubelale, I told anyone who asked that Celebration was the best beer of any style that I had ever found and it is still very much in that conversation. 100 Points
A couple of others to watch for:
Great Lakes Brewing Christmas Ale: Y’know those honey Whiskeys and Vodkas that are suddenly everywhere? Think of those and add cherries, orange rind, a handful of spices, chocoate, molasses, and some floral/citrus hops and you have this beauty, one of America’s most celebrated Winter Ales.
Odell Brewing “Isolation“: Now. we’re talkin’…BIG malts, chewy caramels, a tart cherry overlay, and a damnably smooth, drinkable finish. One of my favorite winter ales ever, Odell hits their own lofty standard every year and, surprise, it’s not even that hard to find. Sublime…