Here in the Pacific Northwest, we make a lot of beer. Washington and Oregon, taken together with our neighbors in Idaho and Montana – the Usual Suspects when thinking of “northwest” – make up a cluster of working breweries that rivals California, far and away the largest brewing state in the US. If you toss in Alaska, the “northwest-iest” of the American Northwest states, that number reaches over 1,000 and it’s growing, almost daily. You’ll find every World beer style you can name within this region, even including such rarities as Grisettes and Steinbiers and, lately, quite a few kviek or Scandinavian farmhouse beers.
But our embarrassment of riches comes in one particular genre of brewing and, given our latitudes and attitudes, it’s the one you would land upon, given some time and thought…
…The Winter Warmer.
There are number of interchangeable terms: “Winter Seasonal”, “Christmas Beer”, “Holiday ales”, etc., but most all exist within a certain established set of parameters that have remained remarkably un-fiddled-with as indie/craft brewing evolves: They’re strong ales, frequently in the 7 to 10% ABV range and that flexes a bit, in either direction. They emphasize malts, to showcase that mellow roasty character that has such a natural appeal for those of us shivering through another long, bone-chilling Northwest…well, what to call it? Yeah, it’s certainly “winter” but it starts before that and ends, well, whenever it damned well pleases. Nutshell, we have an indeterminate season here that lasts from about early October through sometimes early-to-mid June, in which, on most days, the thumbnail description would be “grey, chilly, misty, and a light wind“. No sane person is looking at that picture and thinking, “Mmmm, I could really go for a Summer IPA, right about now“, unless maybe you had gotten locked in your sauna.
The names are legion: Deschutes “Jubelale”, Maritime Pacific “Jolly Roger”, Pyramid “Snow Cap”, Pelican “Bad Santa”, Ninkasi “Sleigh-R”, Laurelwood “Vinter Varmer”, Hopworks “Abominable”, Boundary Bay “Cabin Fever”, Rogue “Winter Reserve”, Selkirk Abbey “Winter Heater”, Big Sky “Powder Hound”, Alaskan “Winter Ale”, Bend Brewing “Waist Deep”, Widmer “Brrr”…and on and on.
But for many of us in the WA/OR sub-region, there are a relative handful that we ALWAYS drink, even if we might not seek out that particular brewery’s stuff at any other time of year. I confess to mostly skipping Widmer – and I humbly apologize – but pick up Brrr every time it comes to stores. I defend Pyramid constantly with people who accuse them of low ambition but actually have been known to line up to get “Snow Cap”. And Maritime Pacific “Jolly Roger” is a MUST, for every October through June PNW Shiverfest.
But one of my very favorites is from a brewery in Hood River, Oregon, that takes a shit-ton of abuse at the hands – and mouths – of know-it-all Western beer geeks, Full Sail. And they make what I consider the definitive example of a damnably hard style of ale to pull off, the Winter IPA.
Full Sail “Wreck The Halls” Double IPA is, according to Full Sail Executive Brewmaster Jamie Emmerson, “a sublime hybrid of an American-style IPA and a winter warmer“. It used to be called “Hoppy Holiday Ale” but now comes clean about its intentions and reads simply “Double IPA” on the label.
“Wreck…” is different. Those expecting a more traditional DIPA are going to be either disappointed or delighted and my money’s on delighted. Lighting up the background and finish of this ale is a whoppin’ backbone of Centennial hops that leans to the herbal/grapefruit continuum but throws off sparky notes of citrus, jasmine, and spruce, neatly tucked behind a lovely swath of mellow light caramel, sugar cookies, subtle roasted nuts, and a creamy hint of creme brulee that lingers on the tongue. “Creamy” is, of course, not an adjective that usually get hung on any IPA but this one’s intentions are a bit more, uh, warming. It’s 8.5% ABV, covering the “warming” thang, and sports 68 IBUs and you’ll get the full effect of that lovely, mitigated bitterness on the finish of every sip. It feels a lot more substantial than the usual run of DIPA in the mouth and carries its malt heft through the LONG, lingering finish.
For me, every year, there is about a five minute adjustment phase I go through in tasting it because it so cheerfully confounds just about all of our communal preconceived notions about big IPAs. “Wreck The Halls” doesn’t, in fact, fit neatly into any context because it is its own context. I have to dig into my memory of the previous year’s “Wreck” to find a context and then have that Senior Moment of going “Oh, yeah,” like a fuggen jughead as my brain shifts to the slot marked “Eccentric Winter Ales” and the coin drops. But when it does, ooooh baby, pure pleasure every year.
Yes, you should by all means pick up some Samuel Smith’s “Winter Warmer” and Sierra Nevada “Celebration” and Great Divide “Hibernation” and 21st Amendment “Fireside Chat” and even some of the Tragically Overlooked like Dark Horse “4Elf”, Nøgne Ø “God Jul”, and Terminal Gravity “Festivale”, if you can find ’em. But if your jam is Year ‘Round IPA action, you owe it to yourself to pick up some “Wreck The Halls” and see what’s possible in neatly slipping the square peg of hoppiness into the round port of winter seasonal. 96+ Points