As wool socks and long johns are awakened from their summer hibernation and seeing your breath becomes as familiar to the eye as 4:30 p.m. sunsets, an annual question is once again raised: How the hell will I keep warm this winter? But keeping your body toasty is a no-brainer – just make sure your Christmas list says MEC repeatedly or try to find someone to help you warm up that down comforter of yours. Still, the only thing that can warm both body and soul is simple and time-tested: booze.
My favourite remedy for a mid-winter cold is a hot toddy – heated lemonade with a shot of scotch and a spoonful of honey. A Saturday of snow fights and sledding is finished best with a hot chocolate doctored with the deliciously herbal liqueur Chartreuse. But this isn’t to say you should run from beer when it drops to the negatives.
The Winter Warmer is a style of beer hailing from the English brewing tradition. These malty sweet brews are all about body and alcohol in the flavour. They have little hop bitterness but are often spiced with cloves, cinnamon, and other festive aromatics, influenced by the archaic “wassail,” a heavy ale mixed with spices drunk during Twelfth Night and Christmas ceremonies.
It makes sense then that Winter Warmers are often referred to as holiday ales or Christmas beers. Their seasonal release has many Québécois brewers formulating new brews. One such beer is La Rudolphe ($13.99 for 750mL) from Microbrasserie Saint-Arnould in Mont-Tremblant. This self-proclaimed ambrée des fêtes is a true Winter Warmer. It pours a cloudy ruby red with a beautiful, thick head on top and has a spicy aroma that conjures up images of sugar plum fairies.
The taste follows suit: a malty sweetness is fronted by caramel tones and underscored with hints of spruce and even cranberry. The spices used in brewing bring out these wintry flavors while the 6.2 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) brings some warmth.
I also found that there are ways to ruin a perfectly good festive beer. Brasserie Breughel’s Bière de Noël ($6.29 for 500mL) is a downright Grinch of a beer. Though I’m sure the yuletide spirit thrives in the tiny village of St-Germain de Kamouraska, it has escaped the brewers of Bière de Noël. Listed as an Extra Strong Dark Ale, this brew clocks in at 11 per cent ABV and is flavoured with hops and coriander, a spice usually relegated to Belgian Wit beers.
The taste is harsh – like rotgut whiskey – and relies on the coriander to back up the alcohol, unlike other Winter Warmers which employ a traditionally malty body for a hearty, warming beer.
Generally, Winter Warmers are best when eaten with sweets (enter all Christmas food), dark chocolate, or sweeter cheeses. Another beer that achieves the same results is the German Doppelbock. The syrupy sweet Aventinus ($3.50 for 500mL) from Bavaria’s G. Schneider & Sohn is brewed with wheat, adding a sour contrasting note to the sweet flavour. The result was a perfect pairing for the sweet mooncake left over from the recent Mid-Autumn Festival in Chinatown.
Both Québécois beers are available at the vastly underrated dépanneur Épicerie José inc. (corner of Duluth and Berri), and the Aventinus is supposed to be available at all SAQs, but I only found it at the SAQ Express on Mont Royal and Clark. Once you track these beers down, it will make your winter drunker, warmer, and definitely more bearable.