Slowly but surely, our store shelves are being liberated from the tyranny of the Oktoberfests that have been taking up so much space over the past few months, their eclectic label designs doing little to disguise the fact that they all pretty much taste exactly the same. As temperatures continue to drop and the holidays loom just around the corner, we see the arrival of winter seasonals. And not a day too soon.
There are no strict guidelines for what qualifies as a winter seasonal, of course, as they can technically be categorized as any number of different styles. But they tend to be somewhat dark in color, relatively low in bitterness and heavily focused on the malt profile. There's a spiciness that pops up in some of them, and a warming quality that should be present in all of them. There are some duds among the options that are readily available in the city (Harpoon Winter Warmer, you are disgusting), but two of the best happen to be produced right here in our own backyard.
Blue Point Winter Ale
The Winter Ale from Long Island's Blue Point Brewing is technically an Amber Ale, for whatever that's worth. And it does pour a very dark amber, with flashes of brilliant red when held up to light and a finger's worth of khaki-colored head. The smell is nice and sweet, with a touch of spice—possibly from the Vienna malts, which are also used in many Oktoberfests. The spiciness comes out even more in the taste, but is offset just enough by hints of caramel, toffee and a gentle, lingering bitterness. If I there's a complaint to be made, it's that it could be a bit more carbonated, but still: it's a really good, warming winter beer that's surprisingly complex and, at 7% ABV, sufficiently hearty.
Brooklyn Winter Ale
This offering from local behemoth Brooklyn Brewery is categorized as a Scottish Ale, a style known for it's almost singular focus on maltiness. It's darker in color than the Blue Point—in plain sight bordering on brown, with hints of deep red showing up in light—and the creamy, off-white head is a bit more substantial. There's no spice evident in Brooklyn's version, just an abundance of sweet malts that suggest brown sugar, plus some roasted malts and the slightest touch of chocolate. At a more than reasonable 6%, it's a perfect beer to have on hand for holiday gatherings: moderately sessionable and delicious yet unlikely to offend.