Beer is like a moody lover. It can do you so right, before turning around (as soon as the next morning!) to do you so wrong. But beer still loves you, baby. Don’t be like that.
Seasonal beers, more than any other, know how to find the right mood. In the summer, you want to strip down to your ill-fitting swim trunks and caress the nearest icy saison. During the colder months, you might rather find yourself a lover with a little more meat on those bones—good malty backbones, to be exact.
“Winter beers are typically high in alcohol and warming,” Three Notch’d brewmaster Dave Warwick said. “It’s like a sweater you wear on the inside.”
If that sounds like a feeling you’d be into, consider these six winter beers you can try without ever leaving Charlottesville city limits. In fact, they’re mostly available within a mile and a half of one another, so throw on a snuggie and make it a pub-crawl.
Champion Brewing Company releases so many beers so frequently, it’s tough to pin down one “winter seasonal.” The fastest growing brewer in Charlottesville is just finishing up its run of the Christmas beer “Yule Shoot Your Eye Out,” with two kegs left at the Belmont tasting room and six waiting to be sprinkled around the city by distributor Hop and Wine. Owner and brewmaster Hunter Smith said he intended for the beer to run out around Christmas, but if you can find one of the last few kegs around town, it’s worth a taste. With a spice mix that’s kicked up by the addition of ginger—it gives the beer something you can both taste and feel—it’s a unique twist on the classic “winter warmer” style.
Smith said the next winter beer to check out at Champion is the chocolate-cherry stout, a concoction that grew out of a suggestion by his wife. Since she’s been pregnant pretty much the whole time the brewery has been in operation, Smith figured she deserved a beer of her own. The stout, a lower-alcohol modification of Champion’s Red Scare Russian imperial, was just hitting taps at press time, and Smith said he wasn’t entirely sure how the cherries, added to the beer late during fermentation, would stand up to the chocolate. But knowing Smith’s over-the-top style (he added about three times the number of organic cherries that he thought was appropriate), they should come through.
“If we say something is going to be like something, we really try to make sure that it is, even if it is on the side of overdoing it,” Smith said. “There is nothing more disappointing than picking up a smoked vanilla porter and saying ‘I can kind of see that.’”
With craft beer culture exploding around Charlottesville, it’s easy to forget about good old South Street. Don’t. The place still offers solid craft beers for some of the best prices in town.
As of last year, South Street added a new winter seasonal that’s a bit outside the box and worth looking out for (brewer Jason McKown said he’ll likely make one more batch before spring). Starting with the base recipe from South Street’s “Absolution” English brown ale, head brewmaster Jacque Landry added a hop bill that draws on the power of three varieties typically found in New World creations—Columbia, Centennial, and Cascade. The result, “C-Solution,” is a beer with a foundation in classic winter flavors but with the flavorful, bitter punch hopheads have come to love in modern IPAs.
“I like it because it has a good amount of malt character to give it a nice balance,” McKown said.
An older take on the winter seasonal but no less unique is South Street’s Sahti. The juniper-spiced ale is based on an old Finnish recipe, and it’s among only a handful of sahtis produced in the U.S. The brew is lighter bodied than what many of us have come to expect out of winter ales, but the piney juniper notes smack of the holiday season.
The thing that puts me off about winter beers is their reliance on malt for flavor. I’m as guilty as anyone of allowing myself to get addicted to huge hops, so I often find malty beers excessively sweet and cloying. Needless to say, when Three Notch’d put its “Sweet Winter Ale” on the menu, I wasn’t running to the brewery to try it.
Somehow, it works.
“It’s sort of a made-up style,” Warwick said. “It’s a winter warmer but lower on the alcohol. It’s just a feel good, wintertime, sit-by-the-fire beer.”
Three Notch’d also offers a slightly off-center ale for the chilly season, a Belgian tripel known as “Brother Barnabas.” Tripels often get lumped into the winter category because of their high alcohol contents and full body. The Three Notch’d version, named after the only remaining Belgian monk in Virginia, has enough ABV and structure to warrant a winter tipple, but for me it lacks the fig and raisin flavors that suit the bigger Belgians of the season.
“Even though it is fruity and crisp, it’s not like something you’d want to drink in the summer,” Warwick said. “To me, it is a nice wintertime beer.”
It’s hard to argue with that.