The Know: A guide to Colorado winter beer and special December releases

“Now that the weather — finally! — is turning colder, it’s time to celebrate the best time in the beer calendar.

Say what you want about the hoppy beer releases each spring, or the fruity wonders each summer, but the malt and roast flavors that define winter ales offer a good reason to celebrate the season. Colorado’s craft beer makers offer plenty of options for the winter months, from Christmas spiced ales to barrel-aged stouts.

Here’s a guide to some of the tastiest winter beers in Colorado. We consulted with beer buyers at three great Denver bottle shops to compile this list — Mondo Vino, Molly’s and Argonaut. But like any list, it surely misses a few good ones.

The tour starts with …

Lone Tree Brewing’s English Old Ale features the flavors of the holiday season. (Courtesy of Lone Tree Brewing.)

Winter and Christmas ales

It seems counterintuitive — like pumpkin beer in August — but most winter and Christmas ales are hard to find in December. One that often disappears by now is the limited release of Upslope Christmas Ale, a spice-forward Belgian beer with dark fruit flavors and a color to match Rudolph’s nose.

Three of the largest Colorado craft brewers own the winter beer scene. Avery Brewing’s Old Jubilation Ale is a stand-out English ale with flavors of caramel, raisins and dried fruit. To add to its accolades, the beer ranked 10th in The Beer Connoisseurs magazine’s 2017 list of holiday beers.

Great Divide Brewing’s Hibernation Ale offers similar flavors in an English-inspired Old Ale, a style that sadly only appears this time of year. The beer offers a malt roast with warming alcohol (8.7 percent ABV) and a kick of hops, given the America twist of dry-hopping.

Odell Brewing’s Isolation Ale is a winter warmer with caramel notes, but it stands apart with a crisp hop finish that defies the idea that winter beer is heavy on the gullet. An even lighter beer for the season: Colorado Native’s Winterfest, a lager with spice characteristics from the malt.

This year, a handful of smaller Colorado craft breweries are reviving the gingerbread beer trend. Both Lone Tree Brewing’s English Old Ale, with snickerdoodle-cookie spice flavor, and Caution Brewing’s Gingerbread Stout, with actual cookies in the brew process, debuted in November but may still be on tap at the breweries.

A new batch of gingerbread beers will be ready soon. Bruz Beers will tap its Belgian-style Gingerbread Dubbel on Dec. 15. And a collaboration party Dec. 16 led by Intrepid Sojourner Beer Projectand Spice Trade Brewing will feature a Gingerbread Helles Bock and other infused beers (not to mention a gingerbread house competition).

Not all holiday-themed beers are dark ales. Upslope’s Wild Christmas Ale is a sour aged in Leopold Bros. Maryland-Style Rye Whiskey barrels and refermented on black raspberries. It’s a step up from versions in years past. And Jessup Farms’ Crossdrinker: Whiskey Sour is a blend of malty strong ale and a dark sour with lemon puree that seems fitting for a holiday party.

A handful of seasonal IPAs round out the offerings. New Belgium Brewing’s Accumulation is a white India pale ale that pours hazy and tastes like the citrus of the season while Sanitas’ BoxCar Coffee Black IPA is appropriate remix for this time of year. Ska’s Euphoria Pale Aleoffers tastes of toast and even a hint of chocolate to blend with a balanced grapefruit hop flavor.

If you want to indulge in more than a dozen holiday beers — including a few special ones from Colorado — plan to visit Hops & Pie at noon on Dec. 16 for the Cold Weather and Christmas Beer Fest.

A return to traditional beer styles

Don’t think spices are needed to make a good winter ale — most of the season’s flavors are naturally imparted by malt and yeast in some of the most traditional styles. Now’s the time of year to rediscover a good sessionable brown ale, like Bonfire Brewing’s Demshitz at 5.5 percent ABV with its caramel sweetness and a wee hint of smoke.

Other breweries also are touting classic styles great for this time of year include Wibby’s Double DunkelMockery’s Malt Licker, a barrel-aged old ale; Wit’s End Ugly Sweater, a Belgian-style brown ale; and Strange’s Dr. Strangelove, a barleywine.

Left Hand Brewing’s Fade to black is an award-winning foreign stout. (Image courtesy of Left Hand Brewing.)

The darker the better

But who are we kidding — winter is the time for stouts and porters. And Colorado breweries deliver a bountiful list of options. The most traditional, but one of the best, is Left Hand’s Fade to Black, a foreign stout that drinks lighter and smoother than its color suggests with flavors of licorice and molasses.

For their Coffee Baltic Porter, Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project took an underappreciated style, the Baltic porter, and added roasted beans from Method Coffee Roasters in a way that lets the coffee shine with dark fruit and chocolate flavors in this new beer.

Many breweries see dark beer as a platform to have fun. WeldWerks Brewing’s Coffee Coconut Stout blends the flavors in a balanced approach, and Oskar Blues’ Death By Coconut is an overwhelmingly sweet coconut explosion. Elevation’s Senorita Imperial Horchata Spiced Porter and Lone Tree’s Horchata showcase the cinnamon and vanilla flavors of the Mexican drink. Great Divide Brewing’s Chai Yeti Imperial Stout, a new kid on the block this year, goes Himalayan for inspiration and keeps your palate guessing with a interesting spice profile. And don’t forget Fiction’s Feely Effects, a green-tea milk chocolate stout that bursts with flavor.

It’s rare-beer hunting season

Most of the beer above is available on the shelves of good bottle shops in the Denver area. You’ll have to hunt to find the ones below.

Many of these beers land in limited quantities at bottle shops, while others you can only get if you wait in line at a brewery. But these are special beers, often good for aging in a cellar, and the extra effort is worth it.

Epic Brewing debuted a new beer in its Big Bad Baptist series called Triple Barrel — a blend of rum and whiskey barrel-aged beer and barrel-aged coconut and coffee — that’s an immediate favorite that is disappearing too fast. (Epic’s Mexican-spiced Baptista is easier to find and tasty, too.)

Another one that is quickly vanishing from the beer cooler is Copper Kettle Brewing’s Mocha Snowed In, a robust barrel-aged stout with chocolate and coffee flavors. Spangalang’s Barrel-Aged Nightwalker is available in crowlers from Craft Alley, and the brewery is now offeringa variant aged in red wine barrels on tap.

If you miss them, the next weekend is packed with big beer releases. (I’ll list them, but you have to promise to save me a beer if I’m in the back of the line.)

Head to Greeley on Dec. 8 for beer releases from two of the best breweries in the state: Weldwerks Brewing will sell limited quantities of Mexican Achromatic,and Wiley Roots will offer five different beers, including Cinnamonstah, an imperial stout with cinnamon. The same day in Denver, Cerebral Brewing will offer a triple release that includes Safe Word, an imperial stout with cocoa, coconut and cinnamon. (All three breweries are also releasing great hazy IPAs, too.)

On Dec. 9, Oskar Blues will once again debut its much-anticipated Rum Barrel Aged Death By Coconut at locations in Boulder and Longmont. Later that day, Ratio Beerworks in Denver will release its 2017 Genius Wizard imperial stout ahead of a party that evening to showcase older vintages and variants of the same beer.

The same day includes Station 26 Brewing’s 4th Birthday Bash and the tap and bottle release of a port-barrel aged Belgian Quad with plums, a beer fitting for the season. And River North Brewery fans won’t want to miss the release of their whiskey-barrel aged Mr. Sandman.

One final date to put on your beer calendar: Dec. 25. Why? Well, Alpine Dog Brewing is releasing its rum-barrel aged imperial porter with vanilla — just what a family needs to survive the holidays.”


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