Six Festive Holiday Ales to Drink Right Now

New brews from Smuttynose, Navigation, and Slumbrew that'll make this winter a cinch.

winter ales

Photo by Ruby Wallace-Ewing

There is no one interpretation of a “winter ale.” The winter beer category includes winter warmers, hop-forward IPAs, old ales, and a variety of Belgian ales brewed with spices. Typically malty and full-bodied, they all share one common thread: strength. These stiff concoctions are built to buoy the beleaguered through the long winter solstice. Holiday beers date back to the Viking days, when Scandinavians would buttress their brews with ginger, sugar, and other spices—a tradition that has carried over until today.

Here are six of our favorite cold weather ales from the New England area, all of which should make this holiday season truly joyous.

1. Smuttynose Smistletoe
Alcohol by Volume: 8.5%

Smuttynose’s first attempt at a Christmas beer is a drop dead stunner. Inspired by the holiday dessert everyone loves to hate, fruitcake, this yeasty Biere de Garde is brewed with additions of sweet cherries, plums, and black currants. To capture fruitcake’s signature booziness, Smuttynose ages their new Smistletoe on spiced, rum-soaked oak chips, which helps balance out the sweetness of the malt and the tartness of the currants. Not only is this beer cellar-worthy, but the perfect gift with its screen-printed, champagne-style bottle, each of which were hand-filled.

2. Slumbrew Yankee Swap 2014
Alcohol by Volume: 12%

With notes of maple syrup, chocolate, bourbon, and toasted nuts, Slumbrew’s latest vintage of their annual Yankee Swap is like drinking pecan pie out of a bottle. Although 2013’s strong ale had its merits, this year’s imperial stout—once again aged in Turkey Shore rum barrels—integrates effortlessly with the wood tannins and vanilla notes of the rum staves. English chocolate and dark crystal malts give it the added complexity of caramel flavors set against the fullness of chocolate and coffee notes. Bottles of this small-production beer might be difficult to come by, but you can currently find it on draft at Slumbrew’s new Assembly Row taproom, American Fresh Brewhouse.

3. Navigation Brewing Co. Winter Ale
Alcohol by Volume: 11.5%

Bob Johnson and P.J. Mercier’s tiny two-person operation is finally on the verge of distributing outside of their 1,200-square-foot Lowell brewery, which is great news for those of us outside of Kerouac’s hometown. Launched in March, Navigation Brewing Company has been rewarding the intrepid who have made the pilgrimage with their estimable India pale ale, milk stout, and even a German-style Kottbusser. But up until this point, none has come matching the complexity and construction of their brand new winter warmer brewed with six different malts, five types of hops, and Demerara sugar. This massive beer is surprisingly drinkable (and hence, very dangerous!) with subtle hints of brown sugar, mocha, toffee, and dried tropical fruits like mango and pineapple.

4. Rising Tide Polaris
Alcohol by Volume: 7.2%

I’m of the unpopular opinion that not every beer benefits from barrel-aging, but Rising Tide’s Ursa Minor wheat stout—which is heavy on the banana, due to the hefeweizen yeast—is certainly an exception. Polaris, aged for nine months in Smooth Ambler Spirits whiskey barrels, is much more focused, the oaky qualities of the whiskey barrels taming Ursa Minor’s prevalent fruitiness. What you’re left with in this small, 1,800-bottle run is a rich, rounded beer with seductive notes of espresso, smoked meats, raisins, and cocoa nibs.

5. Two Roads Holiday Ale
Alcohol by Volume: 7.3%

Christmastime in Connecticut means the return of two of legendary brewmaster Phil Markoswki’s most popular seasonals: the can’t-miss Route of All Evil, a hoppy porter/stout/black IPA mashup, and his holiday Biere de Noel. Fans of Anchor’s annual Christmas Ale will no doubt gravitate to Two Roads Holiday Ale’s wassail-like characteristics. Inspired by the little known Biere de Noel-style, a subset of Biere de Garde, this red-hued, malt-forward beer has tempting notes of nutmeg, ginger, clove, and other baking spices.

6. Sebago Brewing Slick Nick
Alcohol by Volume: 7.2%

In craft beer terms, Kai Adams’ Sebago Brewing is not only long in the tooth, it’s practically Methuselah. Launched in 1998, this Portland, Maine stalwart has consistently been producing great stouts, porters, and browns, while also delving into more current trends like small-batch, high octane imperial stouts. Slick Nick is a classic English-style strong ale with plenty of earthy malts and a subtle addition of Tettnang and Northern Brewer hops. There’s no such thing as a truly sessionable winter ale, but Sebago’s interpretation—with notes of cinnamon, caramel, and mulled tea—certainly makes you want to open a second.