Winter Brews 

I'm not usually a fan of the winter beer style, but with the mercury dropping below freezing and that chill hanging in the air well into the afternoon, it seemed time to try the latest releases. My taste leans more toward dryer, heavily hopped lagers and ales. The rich malt-driven brews of winter, thick as molasses or overloaded with spice, are just too much of a good thing. A few sips and I'm sated. But the current crop is across-the-board the best I have ever tasted: More reserved in their approach but with enough stuffing to work with the winter weather. While they are all worthy, I have my favorites

This year's Snow Cap from Portland's Pyramid Breweries continues last season's trend with it's spicy malt aromas and lightly sweet but nicely balanced flavors. There's a pleasant hit of espresso and toasted malt up front that gives way to a smooth finish with touches of caramel. Its my favorite in the smooth-and-sweet, oh-so-easy-to-drink category.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Celebration Ale from Chico, California's Sierra Nevada, is a perennial favorite. I recently opened a bottle of their 1999 and it was drinking beautifully. Not sure this one will last that long. It's a bit lighter in color and even more of a hop-driven brew (like a cold weather IPA). Creamy citrus up front with smooth malt in the background and a silky finish make this the winner in the dry, refreshing style.

Wee Heavy is an apt description for Seattle-based Hale's Ales winter offering, an almost opaque ebony-hued brew with dark toasted malt aromas. The flavors are rich with big, but not overly sweet malt, and there's a nice kick of hops on the finish to even things out. With its layers of nutty caramel, fresh bread dough and light citrus, this is one the best--rich enough to satisfy those looking for a big brew, but with the balance and clean finish to please the most discerning palate.

With its infusion of spruce tips in the recipe, Alaskan Winter Ale is usually not one of my favorites. Reminds me a little to much of a malt-based Retsina. But this year is different. It opens with enticing aromas of fresh cut pine boughs and fresh baked bread. Light caramel and mocha flavors are backed by very soft hops, spicy cherries and orange fruit and just a reserved touch of spruce. It's a real winner and the best Alaskan Winter Ale ever.

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