For beer connoisseurs who also happen to be football fans, the Super Bowl couldn't come at a better time. Stores are flush with that crowning triumph of brewers' ingenuity: winter beers.
While it would be un-American to banish Bud from your big game party (after all, somebody's got to help pay for those $2 million TV ads), an array of winter warmers could provide another focus for your guests, particularly if the game is a blowout or the commercials have an off year. The added cost of offering these unusual beers is modest, since they sell for just $1 to $3 more per six-pack than the standard suds.
Although some associate this seasonal offering with dark ales spiced with nutmeg or cinnamon, you'll find just about any hearty style, both lagers and ales. Generally, though, winter brews tend to be heavier, darker, and stronger than ordinary beers, with more residual sugar, says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery. In other words, they're big-bodied, like the players on the field.
San Francisco-based Anchor Steam gets the credit for reviving the winter beer tradition in the U.S. in 1975, with its aromatic Christmas Ale. Now, just about every brewer makes one. Leinenkugel's Big Butt Doppelbock, from a regional Wisconsin brewer owned by Miller Brewing, is an uncommonly smooth bock, while Saranac Season's Best is a nut-brown lager from F.X. Matt in upstate New York.
Other brewers opt for greater complexity. Nationally available Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale and the Midwest's Boulevard Nutcracker Ale both eschew adding spices to their brew, attaining piquant flavor notes solely through the manipulation of malt, hops, and yeast. Rogue, of Newport, Ore., doubles the hop content of its popular Saint Rogue Red to offer a luscious Santa's Private Reserve. The Grand Cru from Allagash Brewing in Portland, Me., has a subtle, fruity taste that comes from allowing some yeast to keep working in the bottle.
A word of caution: Some winter beers are really strong. Take Brooklyn Monster Ale. It's 10% alcohol by volume (enough to classify it as a barley wine) and tastes a bit like sherry. Brewmaster Oliver's recommendation: Save that one for the end, as you celebrate your team's victory or need consolation for your favorite's defeat. By Gerry Khermouch