I'm going to have to face the facts here: most of the winter seasonal beers I've encountered on store shelves this year do not feature the Christmassy spices of my beloved Great Lakes Christmas Ale. I've noticed this more in 2012 than in the past several years. Maybe it's just a coincidence.
Maybe it's not such a bad thing. The only seasonal I've tried this year that's been all spiced up is Southern Tier's 2Xmas Ale, and I need to try it one more time before I can give my take. I like it, but I'm not sure yet how much. The others I've tried? They may not evoke the holidays or even winter all that much, but each one has been quite satisfying.
The two latest winter beers I tried came on tap at Bacchus, the wood-fired pizza restaurant located in the basement of Daisy Baker's in Troy. I need to write more about Bacchus at another time, as we were very pleased with the food, atmosphere, and beer selection found there, but for now the focus is on the beer: Southern Tier's "other" winter seasonal, Old Man (Winter Ale), and Goose Island's Mild Winter.
Southern Tier Old Man (Winter Ale)
I'm not very familiar with the old ale style--among beers listed as such, I may have tried Great Divide's Hibernation Ale a couple years back. But it's a style rooted in tremendous maltiness, and that's certainly the case for Southern Tier's Old Man. With all the malts and an ABV up there at 7.0%, it's warming and earthy and nutty, perfect for sipping fireside.
But to only focus on the malts is to sell this beer short. There are also some piney hops at work here, enough to play in harmony with the malts and lend Old Man a pleasant bit of bitterness at the first taste. Some sweetness is in play as well, but just enough to complement the other flavors. All in all a satisfying beer, and though lacking in those holiday spices, it does feel like a beer for the season.
Goose Island Mild Winter
bought out by Anheuser Busch), is Mild Winter strong enough for the season?
To some extent. It's an interesting angle for a holiday beer and certainly different from Goose Island's more traditional Christmas Ale. Classified as an English Dark Mild Ale, a classic session beer, Mild Winter has a pleasant biscuity flavor from the malts used, and its spicing comes from rye, not any of the typical Christmassy additions.
The first taste to hit me was bitterness from the Willamette and Tettnang hops, and while not unpleasant, it was a bit of a shock to the palate. The more I drank, the more it mellowed out and felt balanced. The rye is a nice way to bring in a little spiciness.
I don't know. I've never been particularly excited by any of Goose Island's standard line of beers (the Vintage Ales I've tried are another story, all quite good in my experience, and yes, still only brewed back home in Chicago), and Mild Winter, while unique and pretty nice in its own way, sort of falls into that line, too. But at 5.6% ABV, it is indeed sessionable, much more than many other winter beers, so that could be taken as a positive in some situations.
The Verdict: Maybe I'm being a little too unenthusiastic about Mild Winter, but it just doesn't evoke the season in any way for me. I suppose you could say, "What did you expect?" considering the name. So yes, I'd recommend it, but mostly for folks enjoying December temperatures in the 60s or something.
Southern Tier's Old Man (Winter Ale) does strike a chord for the chill of winter, which I appreciate. I love the balance of this beer, so while it isn't anything that will blow you away with uniqueness, it's such a solid brew that I could easily see myself coming back to it throughout the season.