Beers of Worth – Winter Beer

In last week’s column I wrote about wine gifts for the holidays, offering a few suggestions for matching wines to recipients. But don’t get me wrong, I think beer can make as suitable a gift – if not more so – for the right person. Maybe the hop-hearted or malt-mad person on your gift list won’t appreciate that bottle of Bordeaux (it’s ok  – we know it’s the thought that counts!) However, with the line up of local winter beers available, you won’t have a problem picking up a brew or few for the beer lover.

First off – what is a winter beer? There is no straight definition. Obviously something that stands up to the cold weather, and can hold its own against hearty, warming foods. These seasonal favourites tend to be boldly spiced or flavoured, harkening seasonal themes (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, chocolate). Often the alcohol is higher and malts are more present. Generally darker in hue and heftier in body, winter beers are meant to warm from the inside out.

I gathered a couple of beer-loving EAT contributors (CH & GH) to taste a selection of local winter beers over the course of a recent afternoon. Here are the results of our afternoon of good cheers, along with any winners in categories we invented on the fly.

*all bottles are 650ml unless noted.


Spinnakers Brewpub Festive Saison
5.5% abv

The lightest hue of the bunch, this pale blond saison style was made with Pilsner malts and spiced with cloves, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. Mild clove and savoury ashes on the nose and palate, this was a nice lighter alternative to many heavier winter beer on the market.


Canoe Winter Gale Strong Ale
8% abv

This amber ale opened with sweep hits of chestnut and finished with milk chocolate malt balls. Soft and balanced, it went down easy, with soft spice at the end. I think it’s a misnomer – it’s more Winter Spiced Soft Ale than Winter Gale Strong Ale.


Stanley Park Brun  
5.1% abv

This was CH’s pick for easy drinking, with bonus points for the user-friendly single sized bottle – this was one of the only two 341ml bottles of the lot we tried. Mild caramel and candle wax on the nose, this had soft spice and sweet malts on the palate, with a muted caramel maltiness on the palate, and an instant espresso powder finish.


Steamworks Blitzen Winter Ale *BEST REINDEER NAME FOR A BEER
9% abv

The label has a steam punk, steam-driven reindeer bursting out of Vancouver’s Science World, remade into a snow globe. Your mind is wheeling before you even take a sip! This lighter hued, hazy ale is in a Belgian triple style with aromas of baked spiced apple and bananas and bright citrus flavours on the full, creamy palate. Quite enjoyable and easy to drink, even for 9%.


Whistler Brewing Winter Dunkel  *BEST APRES-SKI
5% abv

GH and CH agreed that this won top prize for retro Christmas label, what with the snow descending on cut oranges in the forest, backed by the setting sun. Oranges indeed – in fact, someone mentioned Terry’s Chocolate Orange, and forever more, this beer will remain synonymous amongst us with the whack-and-eat treat. Sweet chocolate malt, root beer, orange zest and ovaltine, this is our pick for après-ski, pre-appies.


8% abv

According to the label, this beer was made in the German Dunkelweisen tradition. Also according to the label you can see a man with a toque or a beard, depending if you’re upright or passed out. Tip the (unopened!) bottle upside down and you’ll see what I mean. This is an unfiltered wheat beer (Weissbier), scoring big props for texture and mouthfeel. Moderate fine grained spice and sharp fruits really explode in the glss when the beer was warmed up a bit. Nice bitter chocolate finish.


Central City Thor’s Hammer 2011
11.5% abv

This was the oldest beer of the bunch – on purpose, that is. The brewery bottle conditioned this beer for nearly a year before release, and recommends cellaring (yes, for a beer) for 5 years+. Certainly the most mature-tasting of the bunch, this barleywine was full bodied with muted orange peel, savoury cured meats and bitter walnuts. Warning – the mature flavours may be for more mature audiences only.


Phillips Brewing Trainwreck 2012 *BEST BEEF BEER
10% abv

This barleywine was barrel aged in old bourbon casks, imparting some of the lovely mahogany colour, but lots of the burnished cocoa flavour. Rich malts, milk chocolate, kit kat on the palate. When we were tasting this CH kept imagining how well it would work with roast beef. GH did some investigative reporting on the remainder of the bottle and confirmed a winning combination.


11.8% abv

To celebrate the 5th release of Driftwood’s popular Old Cellar Dweller, they brewed up a second version with four times the ingredients (!) and aged it in Kentucky bourbon barrels. The capsule is officially wax dipped, the label memorable, and the beer as alluring as the come. This unfiltered barley wine has complexity in spaces: mature, wine-like flavours of savoury cured meats, deep spice, heady malts and present hops. As the name barleywine implies, this style of beer can cellar for years. Exceptional beer, that struck a cord and reverberated long after.


9% abv

The elves at Hoyne Brewing sat down one day and decided to wrap a few hundred bottles in gift wrap, so their merry customers wouldn’t have to. Oh yeah, and they also penned a lengthy masterpiece tribute on the bottle label of things they are thankful for. Full bodied, with roasted malts and spiced mixed nuts, this is a lovely way to tell the recipient exactly how you feel, without saying a word (or buying gift wrap).


Vancouver Island Brewery Hermannator – 25th Anniversary Edition *BEST SILVER ANNIVERSARY
9.5% abv

It’s hard to believe this Victoria classic ice bock is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. I remember drinking this beer in junior high school (shhh!!) and having the revelation that beer didn’t have to be disgusting. This limited collectors edition wears a special label, and is unfiltered, the creamy textured mouthfeel winning us over. Roasted chestnuts, soft malt and mildly bitter, this Victoria classic dark beer has stood the test of time.


Russell Brewing Naughty & Spiced
6.5% abv

This porter is memorable, not only for it’s cheeky name and pin-up girl label, but for it’s ambitious plans. Its time spent with oak chips certainly lends a winter woodsiness to the palate, accompanied by mild cinnamon spice, and sweet cigar smoke. Bitter espresso on the finish.


Nelson Brewing Company Bliss Tank
5.2% abv

We unanimously agreed that this organic triple chocolate stout tastes organic. And by that we mean it tastes like the earth – the soil and the bean. The label notes it is affected by three additions of organic chocolate, and while the nose suggests it, I could maybe hazard one milder chocolate source on the palate, along with cold espresso. Once CH noted the Bliss Tank/Piss Tank similarities, it was hard to erase (and truthfully made it a bit harder to enjoy).


Lighthouse Dark Chocolate Porter *BEST FOR THE CHOCOHOLIC
5.5% abv

Though this porter was introduced to the market on March 16, 2012 (which, technically, is STILL winter), we decided to introduce it into the lineup because many people associate chocolate beer with wintertime. This beer was true to its name, with steady cocoa flavours throughout: semisweet cocoa on the nose, and bitter chocolate on the palate. Add in some brown butter silkiness and a bitter temperament, and you have a well-made, interesting clean chocolate beer.


Tree Brewing Vertical Winter Ale
5% abv

This arrival of this popular annual beer in stores is an anticipated event. I can see how the cream soda, mandarin orange and perfumed aromatics could appeal to certain loyal drinkers. Ligher body and slightly sweet, with mild nut and vanilla bean notes lingering on the bitter fresh finish.


Howe Sound Brewing Megadestroyer *MOST ADVENTUROUS
10% abv  

To commemorate the 200th beer list at Vancouver’s famed beer haven, the Alibi Room, Ken Diamond and Howe Sound came together to create a beer not for the faint-hearted. This strong, hearty stout was a revelation – we spent a good 10 minutes just talking about all the different aromas and flavours. Blackstrap molasses, root beer, bitter dried herbs, star anise, salty black Dutch licorice, bitter cocoa. The result is a smoothly powerful, layered brew that charms as much as it packs a punch. The second favourite beer of the bunch – and perfect to share with good friends in the 1L classic pot-stopper bottle (plus the 10% alcohol).


Cannery Brewing Maple Stout *BEST PANCAKE BRUNCH BEER
5.5% abv

We were all a bit curious about how sweet this beer would be, but were pleasantly surprised that the maple is more burnished savoury than Aunt Jemima. That’s because they use real maple, and work hard to blend it in balance with the dark malted stout. Nice roasted acorn squash and spiced finish, smooth and mellow on the finish.

Written By:

Treve Ring is a wine writer, editor, judge, consultant and certified sommelier, and has been with EAT Magazine for over a decade.\r\n\r\nIn addition to her work with EAT, she is a Wine Critic and National Judge for ...

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