As hoodies and coats start making an appearance, so do our favorite winter seasonal beers. We may not get hit quite as hard as our neighbors to the north, but something about “frigid” 50-degree weather makes me start craving a nice bourbon-barrel aged stout. Once scarves come out, I start hankering for a nice Winter Warmer, a traditional spicy winter seasonal style of beer.
Spending cold days hanging out at Banger’s always gets me in the mood to try one of the many coffee-infused beers that they always seem to have on tap. (Side note: don’t be deterred to try out Banger’s in cold weather. They have huge tents up with warmers, making it seem like even more of a proper beer hall.)
2013 was a banner year for the craft beer industry in Austin. We saw the opening of what quickly became one of the premier craft beer joints in Austin, Craft Pride. Not to mention the impressive 6 medal haul at the Great American Beer Fest. But most importantly, distributors finally starting taking notice of Austin and we are now starting to get more deliveries of the best beers brewed around the country. Add that to the already excellent beers the Austin-area is brewing, and the selections can get overwhelming.
So here is a quick and dirty guide to a few of the local holiday beers, Austin-area winter seasonals, and some honorable mentions from around the country that we can expect to see this time of year.
Christmas in My Cup
There are winter seasonals, and then there are holiday releases. They aren’t always the same. Winter seasonals are typically darker, heavier beers. The kind you’d like to curl up with next to a warm fire on a cold night. Holiday releases are almost always centered around Christmas and have spicy and nutty undertones. There aren’t too many holiday releases from the Austin area, but I was able to track down four beers:
Rogness: Holiday – A classic winter ale from our favorite Pflugerville-area brewery. The Holiday is brewed with cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, vanilla, and oatmeal. Rogness describes this as being inspired by an oatmeal cookie. While the ingredients are there, I didn’t really get enough of any to come away with that impression. This was a below-average winter ale that I probably won’t be getting again. Can be found on select taps and in 22oz bottles. 9.6% ABV
Spoetzl Brewery: Shiner Holiday Cheer – We can’t profile Austin-area beers without mentioning the Granddaddy of Texas breweries, Shiner. This is easily the most accessible, and recognizable, of all the beers in this article. It also happens to be my least favorite. The peach flavor is overpowering and the strong malty flavor hits you right away. Not a good balance for me, but its a great beer to use to introduce folks into the world of flavorful “craft beer.” 5.4% ABV
Austin Beer Garden Brewery Co: Blitzen Hoppy – Another pleasant surprise from this rookie brewery, their IPA has Christmas written all over it. It appears to be a carryover from Uncle Billy’s, as a few of the brewers there made the transition to Austin Beer Garden Brewery. I have never had a Holiday IPA before, but they nailed this recipe: a dark, murky red beer with just the right amount of hoppiness. 10% ABV
North by Northwest: Holiday Ale – Easily the biggest surprise I came across while researching this article. NXNW has been brewing this barleywine since 2010 and still has every year’s release on tap! A flight of this amazingly strong, yet very drinkable, ale from each year was only $6, by far the best deal I came across. 2010 was my favorite, but they all tasted somewhat similar. NXNW also makes the current year’s release available via growler or bottles. 9-10% ABV
Winter Releases in Austin
Once the pumpkin beers clear out, you start seeing more winter seasonals on store shelves. This category usually includes a healthy mix of barrel aged stouts or porters. But due to the extended maturation process, you don’t see too many of these from the Austin market just yet (although 512 Brewing just stocked up on barrels in a big way!). Coffee-infused beers also tend to make appearances around this time of year.
Real Ale: Coffee Porter – This is by far the most drinkable of all the coffee releases I’ve tried so far. Most tend to have an overpowering coffee taste up front, but Real Ale has managed to find the perfect recipe for a balanced coffee flavor. I’d highly recommend trying this draught or on a Nitro pour if you can find one, also widely available in 6-pack bottles. 5.6% ABV
Austin Beer Garden Brewery: Captain Ivan Drago – This Russian Imperial Stout was just released last week during a live taping of the Draught Punk podcast at Austin Beer Garden Brewery. I had the chance to try a firkin of this during the Austin Beer Guide Release party and came away impressed. It has a slight coffee taste with a heavy mouthfeel. 10% ABV
Austin Beerworks: Sputnik – Austin Beerworks typically releases the Sputnik in early December, to much fanfare. This Russian Imperial Stout hits you with a big coffee taste upfront, but mellows out with a roasty chocolate aftertaste. Sounds good, but the coffee flavor was too strong for me. I have only seen this available in kegs at your finer craft beer joints around town. ??% ABV
Live Oak: Primus – Pronounced pre-moose, this weizenbock from local favorite Live Oak is something I look forward to every year. Weizenbocks are typically malty, fruity beers that can be compared to certain hefeweizens. The Primus perfectly combines dark fruit flavors with a malty backbone and sweet aftertaste. You can only find this on tap, or if you’re lucky you can get your growler filled. 8.3% ABV
Honorable Mentions: You HAVE to Try These!
Every year the big boys in the American craft beer industry release limited batches of some of their most coveted brews. Only in the last year or two did these beers start making their way to the Austin area. They typically come in bomber-style (22oz) bottles and can range anywhere between $8-$15 dollars a pop. Some of these beers have very limited releases in Austin and are snatched up within hours of being released, thanks to social media savvy beer drinkers.
Firestone Walker: Velvet Merkin – A bourbon-barrel aged version of their Velvet Mervin, which is an oatmeal stout. The Velvet Merkin gets to Austin in very limited quantities. Most shops only allow one bottle per customer, and even then you’re hard pressed to find any in stock. This beer combines a little bit of all my favorite styles: oatmeal beers, stouts, and bourbon-barrel aged. Heaven in a bottle, fantastic velvety oatmeal taste with a vanilla finish. 8.5% ABV
Rahr & Sons: Bourbon-Barrel Aged Winter Warmer – This Dallas-based brewery already comes out with one of my favorite winter seasonals, the Winter Warmer. Take that recipe and age it for 10 weeks in bourbon barrels and you have a Texas winter classic. You get hints of caramel, coconut, vanilla, and cocoa and end it with bourbon deliciousness. 8.5% ABV
Prairie Artisan Ales: Prairie Bomb! – The little brewery that could out of Oklahoma typically releases their Prairie Bomb! around the winter. Scoring an astonishing 99 on the Beer Advocate forums, I had to make sure to get my hands on this the minute it was released. At around $8 dollars for a regular 12oz bottle, this beer didn’t come cheap. But you instantly understand why as soon as you taste it. This American Double Imperial Stout is known for its vanilla and ancho chili tastes and is packed with flavor. 14% ABV
Before you know it, our short winter has come and gone and we’ll have to start making room for the spring releases!
What has been your favorite Winter Seasonal so far this year?