'Tis the season: Colder winter weather means it's time for heavier, strong beers

FARGO - October (and Oktoberfest) are things of the past, which means that winter and winter seasonal beers are not far away. Damian McConn, a brewer with Summit Brewing Co. in Minneapolis, says that the transition to winter beers typically start...

Seasonal beers to try
Seasonal beers to try include: 1. Alaskan Winter Ale. 2. Boulevard Nutcracker Ale. 3. Deschutes Jubelale. 4. New Belgium Snow Day Winter Ale. 5. Breckenridge Christmas Ale. 6. Summit Winter Ale. Photos special to The Forum

FARGO - October (and Oktoberfest) are things of the past, which means that winter and winter seasonal beers are not far away.

Damian McConn, a brewer with Summit Brewing Co. in Minneapolis, says that the transition to winter beers typically starts at liquor stores and bars around this time of the year.

"Once you hit Nov. 1, people tend to move on a little bit to the Christmas and holiday season beers," says McConn, who will be hosting a Summit beer dinner at the HoDo restaurant Wednesday night.

Originally from Kildare, Ireland, McConn has experience working with Guinness in the United Kingdom and probably knows a thing or two about brewing and the brewing seasons.

Some winter beers have already started appearing in liquor stores around the Fargo-Moorhead area, and even more will start popping up in bars and restaurants soon.


The winter beer season usually lasts up through the end of February, McConn says, at which point people start looking ahead to spring and warmer weather and the lighter beers that come with it.

In the next few weeks and months, people can look forward to darker, heavier winter beers, which McConn says typically fall into two different categories: an old ale style, and then a stronger, German-type bock beer.

Winter ale is based on traditional British brews, while bocks are a "stronger, richer version of standard lager beer," McConn says.

If those different names and styles are confusing, don't fret. McConn says winter beers all share some commonalities.

For example, brews will be rich, hearty and heavy in flavor and texture, a little bit stronger than the brown beers of fall, and very different from the light, refreshing beers of summertime.

Not surprisingly, the characteristics of winter beers have to do in large part with the changing temperatures.

"With these more robust beers, there's an association of warmth and richness, which you're looking for when it's 20 below outside," McConn says. "There's that element of comfort we're not looking for in a summer beer."

That desire for a heavier beer during the coldest part of the year has something to do with what our European ancestors drank to sustain themselves during winter, McConn believes.


"There's definitely that historical basis to it for stronger, heartier beers to get you through that tougher part of the year," he says. "That kind of plays out today in our desire."

Although winter beers are dark and heavy, that doesn't necessarily mean they still can't be enjoyed with food - it just takes some work to pair them correctly, McConn explains. At the HoDo's beer dinner for example, Summit's Winter Ale is paired with a lamb stew.

"Because (the beers) are rich, because they have a lot of character, they can work well with food," McConn says. "But the key is not to overdo it too much."

In the very near future, beer fans should expect to see local bars and pubs filling their taps with common winter beers like Sierra Nevada's Celebration Ale, Deschutes Jubelale, Samuel Adams Winter Lager and, of course, Summit's Winter Ale.

There are also some creative takes on winter seasonals out there as well, such as Shiner's Cheer, brewed with peaches and pecans for an unusual yet still comforting taste.

That sort of creative take on a winter beer is something that people can start to expect more often, McConn says, as more and more breweries open up shop across the United States.

By his estimate, there are more than 2,000 U.S. breweries currently in operation, with many more on the verge of getting started.

With so many options and competitors out there, brewers are going to be more apt to try something new and creative to stand apart from the crowd of standard seasonal beers, McConn thinks.


"Brewers are pushing the envelope all the time," he says. "We'll probably see the blurring of the boundaries when it comes to classic seasonal styles."

"I expect to see more innovation and creativity," he added. "It's a good thing to look forward to, I think."


Other winter beers to watch for

Breckenridge Christmas Ale

Bells Winter White

Bells Christmas Ale

Widmer Brothers Brrr

Boulevard Nutcracker Ale

Leinenkugel's Fireside Nut Brown

Alaskan Winter Ale

North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout

New Belgium Snow Day Winter Ale

Related Topics: FOOD
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