Lowcountry winters can be unpredictable and at times downright balmy, but cooler weather sends beer lovers in search of frothy mugs of hardy, spicy, big-flavored beers to keep them warm at their favorite pub.
Veteran beer writer Michael Jackson (the bearded British author, not the pop singer) once said, “Winter beers are as much a state of mind as a style, but beers best for fending off the cold of a long winter night — such as old ales, strong ales, barleywines, and strong lagers — are often associated with winter.”
For local beer enthusiasts, those high-gravity styles — beers with more than six percent alcohol by volume — are hard to find. State law prohibits classic styles such as German bocks and doppelbocks, Belgian Trappists, English barleywines and imperial stouts, Scottish strong ales, and higher-alcohol season brews from being distributed or sold in S.C. (current S.C. law limits alcohol content in beer to no more than six percent by volume — which is barely above the strength of a pint of Bass ale or can of Budweiser).
As it turns out, the big winter beers that enthusiasts make the most noise over — bold-flavored seasonals from Sierra Nevada, Anchor, Rogue, etc. — are stronger than our state’s six percent alcohol limit. There’s a limited selection in town, and some of them have already been discontinued from the beer menus. Fortunately, a handful of tasty winter beers can be found at the local taverns — Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale, Tanner’s Jack, Harpoon Winter Warmer, Samuel Adams Winter Lager, Red Hook Brewery’s Winterhook Ale, and Charleston’s own Southend Brewery’s Harvest Spiced Ale.
Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale
at The Pour House
$7 for 18.7-ounce bottle
James Island. 1977 Maybank Hwy.
One of the most popular English-style pale ales of the season is the hefty Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale made in Yorkshire, England. It’s a deep-amber ale of somewhat higher alcohol and richness than their regular pale ale, distributed in late fall to celebrate the winter holidays. The award-winning Winter Welcome has a malty creaminess, a perfumey, floral aroma with a bit of toasty grain, and a sweet, malty finish. The 12-ounce and 18.7-ounce “Victorian Pint” bottles of Winter Welcome are vintage-dated with a special label each year.
Tanner’s Jack Ale by Greene King Brewery
at Madra Rua
$3.25 / 12-ounce bottle
N. Charleston. 1034 E. Montague Ave.
Although not specifically a winter or Christmas ale, the newly-distributed Tanner’s Jack (from Greene King Brewery in Suffolk, England) is a well-hopped, ample-flavored pale ale brewed to “celebrate an 18th century tradition of drinking fine ales from leather tankards called black jacks or simply ‘jacks.'” At a somewhat normal 4.4 percent alcohol by volume, the beer is at the lighter end of the scale but high in British malt and hops flavor.
Harpoon’s Winter Warmer
at Gene’s Haufbrau
West Ashley. 817 Savannah Hwy.
Another extremely popular seasonal beer in local watering holes this year is Harpoon’s Winter Warmer, the Boston-based microbrewery’s first-ever seasonal beer. The Winter Warmer is a bit darker — clear and deep copper/brown — and stronger (5.5 percent alcohol by volume) than Harpoon’s usual ales. Spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, which balance well with the blend of caramel and darker malts and British and American hops, Winter Warmer is rich, sharp, and aromatic with a hot, spicy finish.
Samuel Adams’ Winter Lager
at Charleston Beer Works
$4 for a pint
Downtown. 468 King St.
It’s not unusual to find another Boston beer — the Samuel Adams Winter Lager — on beer lists around town at this time of year as well. The specialty from Boston Brewing Co. is almost like a spicy “brown ale” lager with rich sweetness and a hint of cinnamon and ginger in the flavor and orange peel citrus in the finish and aroma — an unusually robust lager for the season. (This is a steal for $2 during Beer Works’ bustling happy hour). Sam Adams brews a variety seasonal beers each year; they’re hard to find but well worth seeking out. The “Winter Classics Mix Pack” usually hits stores at the beginning of the holiday season.
Red Hook’s Winterhook Ale
$3.50 for a pint
at Mellow Mushroom
Downtown. 309 King St.
Out of Portsmouth, N.H., Red Hook Brewery’s Winterhook Ale is a rich, deep amber/brown ale with loads of Northwestern hop aroma and flavor (Cascades!) and a dark caramel malt character — sort of an India Pale Ale with a touch of nutmeg and spices. They’ve been making the stuff since 1985, usually containing between 5.5 and 6 percent alcohol by volume.
Southend’s Harvest Spiced Ale
at Southend Brewery & Smokehouse
$3.75 for a pint
Downtown. 161 East Bay St.
Closer to home, Southend Brewery & Smokehouse brewmeister Ahren Warf started making beer at the downtown facility last July, taking over from previous brewer Jay Coke, who stepped in as head brewer after a considerable lapse in activity at the brewery. The Harvest Spiced Ale, currently available on draught by pint glass, is a nice surprise — a medium-to-full bodied copper-colored ale with a clean, malty, bready, clove-y aroma and a balanced caramel malt, hop, and spice flavor. It certainly featured the spiciness of the holiday season (cinnamon, clove, some phantom “ginger,” dark breads, etc.). “It’s based on a Southend recipe, developed by a previous brewer there,” saysWarf. “As far as the results, I have received a lot of positive feedback, so I definitely plan on brewing it again next year.”