Winter Beers – An Ottawa Beer Blogger Christmas
On December 21st, a group of Ottawa-area beer lovers and bloggers got together to toast the holidays and to sample some of the season’s best beer offerings. We treated one another to our favourite Christmas foods and beverages, and together also sampled a few great craft beers for the first time. The atmosphere was lively, the company was second to none and the food and drink were excellent.
Everyone who took part in this gathering brought unique perspectives to the table, not just in terms of palate, but also in their general outlook on beer. The result was a great forum that extended the conversation beyond just the beers that we sampled to include thoughts on food pairings, home-brewing, events, etc.
Despite the lineup of over 20 great brews ranging from pale to sour, from Barley Wines to Imperial Stouts, the group landed on Great Lakes Brewing’s Winter Ale as our favourite regularly available ‘Winter Beer’; which to me meant our favourite for the Christmas season.
Great Lakes’ Winter Ale is a Winter Warmer style beer. A Winter Warmer is a type of Old Ale; a strong, dark and malty beer that is sometimes spiced and was originally designed for consumption during the cold months. The label of ‘Winter Warmer’ is sometimes affixed to Belgian and French style Christmas Ales as well, though this particular beer is a take on the traditional English style.
Great Lakes’ Winter Ale is pleasantly spicy. A nice sweetness, primarily from the malt, presents caramel and dark fruit flavours – and the sweetness doesn’t come across as overkill, as is sometimes the case with Christmas beers. Cinnamon, cardamom and ginger tickle the tongue and a staying taste of bitter orange rind really helps to marry the flavours.
Much like egg nog, gingerbread and Christmas pudding, it is the blend of festive spices that make Winter Warmers a perfect match for the holiday season. Though as with egg nog, gingerbread and many other seasonal goodies, when that short window of opportunity during the second half of December closes, the novelty of having a mouth-full of mulling spice starts to wear off as well. For that reason, I wouldn’t go so far as calling Winter Warmers or Christmas Ales the best all around ‘winter beers’.
Truth be told, I don’t think you could ever consider one style of beer to be the best for a whole season. Sure I could generalize that I drink a lot of Imperial Stout when it’s cold and I love a nice crisp IPA when it’s hot; but, really, I enjoy those those, along with so many other great styles, year-round. If anything, the Ottawa Beer Blogger Christmas tasting reinforced this point. Despite the vast differences between some of the beers we sampled, there were none that really seemed out of place or that we figured should be relegated to a summer tasting. If anything, some of the stereo-typically “less wintery” beers were better paired with our festive spread than the others.
Great Lakes Winter Ale is nicely put together and offers great value-for-money. Though I agree that of all the readily available beers that we tried it best captured the festive flavours that one would associate with the Christmas season, it wasn’t my absolute favourite of the day. In fact, I even preferred another Christmas beer to it.
I’m of the opinion that Les Trois Mousquetaires’ Reserve de Noël is a tremendous beer. Though some found the spice a little too powerful and the level of sweetness a bit much, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Billed as a Spiced Red Lager, there’s a beautiful ginger and candied fruit aroma that carries through to the taste. Strong and spicy ginger flavours up front, with beautiful piney hop, dark fruit, some toffee and vanilla, pear, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon. Best suited for sharing, served hot or cold, it would make a great post-Christmas dinner digestif (though I’m not sure it would actually help with belly-fullness).
Thanks again to April and Chuck from ‘For Barley or For Wort‘ for hosting us and to fellow Ottawa Beer Bloggers Marissa (The Beer Gypsy), Brian (Bryehn.net), Katy, who couldn’t stay but left us a vintage Mill St. Barley Wine (Ottawa Beer Events and Sheltered Girl Meets World) and, honourary blogger, Dave for making it such a special occasion.