Winter beers have become wonderfully diverse since the fading of the Great Triple Stout Craze of ’15. There are still plenty of dark, heavy hitters out there (some with a welcome tart note) but we also have lots of other choices—from Christmas beers to English-style bitters to a porter for breakfast.
These ten are the beers I’m looking forward to this season. Some are new offerings while others rank as old standbys. In our current issue (available here, in breweries and on newsstands) they all carry the “Growler 10” badge.
Cranky Zestive Ale (6.2% ABV) by Innocente — From clementines in the toe of your stocking to the dreaded cake, fruit plays an important supporting role over the holidays. Here, orange peel and cranberries from Muskoka deepen the complexities of the base ESB.
Ho Ho H’oast House Bière de Noël (7.5% ABV) — The sweetness recalls brown sugar (leaning to molasses) with fine points of chocolate in the background. Easier drinking than the 7.5% ABV or the six months it spent in bourbon barrels indicates. Extra points for buying a couple bottles to stock away from the drinks of Christmas Yet-to-Come.
The big guns
Freyja (9.7% ABV) by Little Beasts — Not everything in the imperial category has to have a black, or even dark, base. Freyja is a powerful saison, aged in chardonnay barrels, with a touch of vanilla lurking behind the orchard fruit.
Blackburne (9.7% ABV) by Left Field — Two things are true of almost all beers made by this east Toronto brewery: There’s a wacky piece of baseball trivia behind the name and they are deliciously well-made. This imperial stout with layers of dark roasted flavours and a silky punch is no exception. They also do a bourbon-barrel-aged version that gets high marks.
Henderson’s Beast (11% ABV) — Honestly it’s not just the sweet wordplay (note the extra “a”) that earned this beer a spot on the list. Caramel and raisin flavours show up in this imperial brown ale with hints of barrel age.
Donkey Venom (9.5% ABV) by Bellwoods — A longstanding favourite for those, like me, who are keen fans of tart dark ales. Brett and barrel-ageing combine for a ying-yang effect that makes this one of the best special Ontario beers to share with friends and family over the holidays.
Dominion City’s Between Two Evils bourbon-barrel-aged stout (11% ABV) — A full year in the barrel smoothes the punch on this heavyweight that’s filled with darkly roasted chocolate. The consensus seems to be that this is a standout vintage. This one is wine strength, so sip cautiously.
Stack’s Helter Smelter (10.4% ABV) — The straightforwardness of this imperial stout from Sudbury is a bit of a throwback. Dark sweetness ties together the chocolate and coffee notes. At solidly under $20, a six-pack is a good-value play from their website.
Indie Alehouse breakfast porter (7.2% ABV) — Is it a bit cheeky to claim a 7+ ABV porter is best way to start your day? Sure. But, over the holidays, I’d way rather have this in my cup than coffee spiked with sugary liqueur. You’re signing up for chocolate and coffee laid on top of an oat-enriched body.
Bettah Bittah (4.5% ABV) by Rurban Brewing — A malt-leaning British pale ale with plenty of biscuit notes and a touch of fruity yeast character to keep things interesting. Ideal for remembering that there are plenty of very good cold-weather beers under 5% ABV. You’ll find more in my Snow Season Sessions roundup.