With so many new and recurring beers produced every winter, what should a craft beer lover choose? You could drink every new brew you see on tap or the shelves—an appealing option when decreased daylight makes going to the gym for a natural endorphin boost all the more daunting. But unless you boast a high-enough tolerance for most winter beers’ increased ABV percentages, you risk either missing a limited-edition release, destroying your liver or something even worse: feeling too bloated to drink anymore.
So save yourselves, Charm City craft connoisseurs, and read our totally objective takes on nine of greater Baltimore’s best winter seasonals.
Brewed by: The Brewer’s Art (packaged at Oliver Brewing Co.)
Style: This unique ale, brewed in some form since 1998, incorporates both German and Belgian malts and uses a special Belgian yeast strain. The Mt. Vernon institution spices this fan favorite, which founding partner Volker Stewart described as a “winter warmer," with candi sugar and curaçao orange peel.
Our thoughts: Many craft beers with comparable levels of flavorful ingredients can feel overloaded, and spice-sensitive drinkers might put St. Festivus in this category. But fans of drinks that combine sweet and bitter will find this seasonal brew strikes that balance well. With light caramel-esque notes on the nose, St. Festivus goes down smooth with a light spice and rich malty taste. Sip, don’t chug.
Style: Monument City’s cold-weather seasonal is a Russian imperial stout, a style of dark beer named for the Russian royalty who first drank the British brew. It boasts notes of toffee and chocolate throughout.
Our thoughts: Simpler is better with this local take on a classic dark beer style. Woodstove comes out the can thick, but ultimately goes down smooth. The smell and taste of toffee and chocolate dominate without feeling too sweet, while the high ABV and rich taste guarantee an even-keeled warming sensation. Woodstove is ideal for snowy campfires, but pace yourself, lest you fall asleep in the snow.
Style: The wide-reaching Rosedale brewery brews this double IPA with seasonally appropriate spruce tips and a flavorful mix of cascade, simcoe and citra hops.
Our thoughts: Just like the plot and lead actor of “Die Hard" that the beer’s name references, Spruce Willis is a lively holiday offering for people who don’t usually like holiday things. A subtle hint of spruce adds oomph to an otherwise hoppy and flavorful double IPA, while citrus notes even out the bitterness. Consider pairing with a burger or steak.
Style: The most alcoholic beer on this list, The Great Hunt is a Belgian-style quadrupel that the Harford County brewery aged in a Weller Antique 107 bourbon barrel for months. This aging gives the beer notes of caramel and vanilla, as well as the familiar smell of good whiskey.
Our thoughts: Belgian-style beers with ABVs as high as this one will undoubtedly test even the most alcohol-tolerant drinkers. Resist the temptation to drink this as fast as its low-key tastiness encourages, and you’ll get a better sense of what separates this farm-brewed quadrupel from other high-ABV American Belgian-style beers—namely, the immediate smell of toffee and bourbon on the nose, and immediate warming sensation. Please don’t drink it while actually hunting, though.
Style: The Halethorpe institution’s dark IPA uses four types of hops and five different malts, resulting in a unique full-bodied taste.
Our thoughts: Taste aside, the Night Swell label artwork deserves praise. It takes Heavy Seas’ ocean-faring theme in a much darker direction, presenting an intimidating masted ship in front of an eerie full moon and starless night sky. But if the label strikes fear, then the taste will entice fans of both IPAs and darker beers. The hops and malts strike a fragile but delicious balance, making for an earthier and more subdued beer than many of Heavy Seas’ explosive offerings. Night Swell ultimately presents the best of all worlds, with an ABV that buzzes without blacking out.
Style: This oatmeal stout draws from seven types of malts and Cascade and Columbus hops.
Our thoughts: The creamy taste of oats juxtaposes the dark malts and subtle hops to give Snow Pants a distinct taste from other winter stouts. It pours smooth and rich, with a more dynamic taste and feeling of fullness than the higher-ABV Russian imperials. Snow Pants, as its name and label art suggests, will steel anybody against a city-stopping snowstorm.
Style: The Dundalk-based brewery infused this dark beer, named for Baltimore’s pioneering electric streetcar, with rye, a plant closely related to wheat and barley with its own unique flavor profile.
Our thoughts: Finally, a dark winter beer for the lightweights! At 5.5% ABV, Next Stop, like many of Key’s beers, offers a simple but powerful taste without alienating people who can’t crush four high-ABV beers without getting into serious trouble. The addition of rye makes for an earthier beer than most of the others on the list, as well as pleasant drinking experience for any gathering where quantity is just as important as quality.
Style: The legendary Irish brewer’s lone U.S. brewery aged this blend of barleywine and imperial stout in Bulleit bourbon barrels. Stock Ale is the latest Open Gate creation to earn widespread distribution, after Guinness Blonde and Over the Moon Milk Stout.
Our thoughts: In keeping with its keen mix of centuries-old tradition with newer craft brewing aesthetics, this beer is definitely one for the bourbon lovers. The characteristic Bulleit sweetness and light burn immediately comes off of the nose, without overwhelming its rich taste. The flavors are far more subdued than one would expect from a beer aged in barrels from a whiskey as distinct as Bulleit.
Style: This Christmas edition of the Homeland neighborhood brewery’s Galacticat IPA is an unfiltered version, brewed with figs and juniper berries.
Our thoughts: Galacticat, hands down, wins the award for best label art of any winter seasonal beer in Baltimore (and maybe the world). Recurring Full Tilt mascot Hops the Cat dons a red Santa hat and cape while riding an impressively sized hop as presents trail behind him and his eyes glow green. As for the beer itself, those scared by the mix of ingredients within the brewing recipe needn’t worry. It might pour real cloudy, but it tastes as smooth as any other wintry IPA you’ll find in the market. Galacticat is a great winter alternative for people who categorically dislike dark beers, and a must-have in the fridge of any beer-drinking cat lover.
No beer list can include every option, so before you start emailing unsolicitedUntappd links, here are some honorable mentions:
Can’t get enough of Monument City’s Woodstove? Head to the brewery as soon as possible to pick up two limited-run variants. One was aged in Sagamore Spirit’s rye whiskey barrels, while the other, a collaboration with Aveley Farms Coffee Roasters, incorporates coffee and vanilla bean. While you’re there, see if they still have Among the Pines, their seasonal double IPA, in stock.
Look out for more of DuClaw’s limited-edition beers released this season: The PastryArchy Chocolate Cherry Bon Bon, a Russian imperial stout that tastes like its name; Sour Me Wild Cherry, a deep crimson-colored sour ale made with Bing cherries; and Bygone Snowfall, a lager brewed with juniper berries in collaboration with Columbus, Ohio’s Wolf’s Ridge Brewing.
Heavy Seas’ Siren Noire chocolate stout is brewed with delicious Brewer’s Gold hops heavy amounts of Belgian coco bean nibs and aged in bourbon barrels with vanilla beans for five weeks. It’s another great holiday offering for stout stalwarts.
In addition to Snow Pants, Union invites winter with a few other limited edition beers, including Chessie barleywine-style ale and Michele’s Granola Porter, the latter of which was created in collaboration with the local Michele’s Granola