Nostalgia and tradition are not words typically related to craft beer these days, but…
Think back and remember the pre-pandemic world. You visit a good beer bar, one with a couple dozen beers on tap. The draft menu featured a few beers with which you are already familiar along with a whole bunch of beers you’ve never tasted before. New, different, innovative, novel, unknown, unexplored beers for you to add to your Untappd total.
That’s what 2019 looked like in the world of American craft beer. Flagship beers were rare, having been set aside to make room for a constant stream of new and one-off beers. When the world begins to spin on its axis again and life returns to something resembling normal, it is likely the trend will continue.
In the face of all this newness, all this novelty, all this instagrammicfication, there is an exception. Resisting the allure of new Untappd badges, beer lovers still reach for nostalgic winter beers. Sierra Nevada’s Celebration, Anchor Brewing’s Christmas Ale, and Deschutes Brewing’s Jubelale are just a few of the most familiar examples. And then there are the local favorites like Maritime Pacific Jolly Roger, Boundary Bay Cabin Fever, Pike Brewing Auld Acquaintance, Dick’s Double Diamond, and Hale’s Wee Heavy.
I am no different. Usually, I’m interested in trying anybody’s newest creation. Perhaps I’m not as Untappd-driven as a lot of people these days, but I still find myself drawn to new beers, but this time of year something shifts inside my brain and drives me in a different direction. I’ve talked to other folks who agree: there is still something special about those old, familiar winter beers.
Why is Winter Beer Different?
Recently, I reached out to some trusted, revered beer experts to find out what they reach for this time of year and ask why we never tire of those classic winter beers.
I don’t know if I’m trusted, revered, or an expert, but for me, Cabin Fever from Bellingham’s Boundary Bay Brewery sets the season right. It’s like a trusted old friend that I only see once a year. Always glad I found a little time to hang out with my old buddy.
Apparently great minds drink alike. “My fave is Boundary Bay Cabin Fever,” says Gary Sink, the owner/operator at Beveridge Place Pub in West Seattle. “Nice roasty malts, then a slight bitter finish so that it isn’t cloying. At 8.5 percent it warms you up without knocking you out.”
“I think as much as we enjoy the next new release from…, there’s also the comfort of being able to reset your palate with a beer that is more balanced than the usual hazy IPA or pastry stout,” says Gary. “I do enjoy the breweries that play with winter spices and herbs (even fir and spruce!), Anchor Christmas is always near the top of the list too.”
I’ll be Home for Christmas
At The Brewmaster’s Taproom in Renton, owner Marley Rall suggests that winter classics have a nostalgic appeal. “We have a wide range of regulars– those who live for what’s new as well as those who live for what’s already known. However, in winter, they all seem to meld into one–enjoying the simple ritual of the annual dark beers. Even my steadfast and hardened IPA lovers will reach for a beer we all know and love, like Maritime Brewing’s Jolly Roger, Fremont Brewing’s BBOMBs, or Deschutes Brewing’s Jubelale, and so on.”
Marley suggests it’s somehow like a longing for home. “I think it’s just like anytime the winter comes. We want to wrap ourselves up in warmth. In what’s comfortable. I think about how, when you’ve left home, you didn’t yearn for that new restaurant. You yearned for your comfort food spot, the place where you went to just hang out with friends, the place where your heart got broken, where your best friend was angry at their parents and just needed to vent.”
“I think that’s what these classic dark beers are more than anything,” says Marley. “They’re our comfort spots. As much as we’ve changed and grown, there’s just something really special about “coming home” and getting to enjoy that solid beer you know is going to be good.”
Welcome Winter, Winter Welcome
Don Scheidt is a Portland-based beer expert and writer who has written for the like of Celebrator Beer News, The New School, and others. This week alone, Don has already forgotten more about beer than most of us will ever know–the new, the old, the unusual, the predictable, nothing gets by this guy.
“Two current favorites are Sierra Nevada Celebration and Samuel Smith Winter Welcome,” he says, noting that the latter of the two has been relabeled for 2020 as Welcome Back in support of hospitality industry workers.
“Mind you, if any of the likes you mentioned [Jolly Roger, Anchor Christmas Ale, Deschutes Jubelale, etc.] are on offer and somehow I can order on draft, those all are great choices.”
Don adds, “Why do people go for the tried and true? Because sooner or later, the shiniest of shiny new baubles, the pastriest of pastry stouts, the thiccest of thicc fruit “sours” all get kinda same-same. The classics stand out for being what they are. Especially in these crazy pandemic times.”
I suppose that’s it. Pretty simple really. There is something about the dark season and the holidays that make us long for the comfort of the familiar. This year especially, there is something soothing and reassuring about anything that is regular or as expected.
Sometimes we want to challenge our palate, to explore, to expand our horizons, but sometimes we just want to hear the same old Christmas songs over and over again. That’s okay. We have the rest of the year to be the cool kids and chase after the newest, the shiniest, and the most-instagrammable beers.
Go on, give that good old familiar winter beer a big hug. You won’t see it again until next year.