Winter Brews 

When it comes to beer (and weather), winter is my least favorite season. Too many winter brews have been insipidly sweet, heavy on the palate but with no sense of balance. But from what I have tasted so far this year, things have changed. The good news is that a number of brewers have backed off on the sweet malt. The bad news is that they've amped up the hops to the point at which they still lack balance. There are exceptions, of course, and here are a few of my first favorites:

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale

A lovely, golden-hued ale from California that consistently ranks near the top of my winter picks, this smooth, lightly sweet malt is perfectly matched by the bitter but not overly assertive hops, making for a full-flavored quaff that satisfies rather than overwhelms. This is one that you won't get tired of drinking before the season is over, and the stuff ages remarkably well.

Laughing Dog Cold Nose Winter Ale

The Cold Nose pours a dark ebony color with a thin but persistent tan and frothy head. Nice dark chocolate malt flavors come through with an exceptionally well-integrated hop bite and a long creamy finish. This has all the weight you want in a winter warmer without any of the cloying sweetness. The folks up in Sandpoint really shine when it comes to their specialty brews and this one is a real winner as well.

De Dolle Brouwer Stille Nacht

There is a luminescence to this hazy, golden-hued brew with a thick, creamy head on top. The aromas are all spicy bread dough, promising more of the same on the palate. It's so opaque that you can't really see the bubbles, but you can feel them on your tongue. They brighten up this brooding brew that's layered with chocolaty malt and spicy fruit flavors. Undeniably rich but nicely balanced by just the right hit of hops. American brewers who like the sweet malt style would do well to study this complex but approachable, absolutely delicious marvel from Belgium.

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