Dark beers to brighten the winter months

Before the beer renaissance in America, there was only one season when it came to brews: the endless summer.

Now, to every beer there is a season and to every season a beer. The bright lagers of summer, the amber ales of fall, the dark brews of winter.

The winter brews just began showing up at beer stores and will be in stock into February. In noodling around the Web, I found dozens of different winter brews. I am sure that is only a fraction, what with new microbreweries opening every day. And even the big boys - Miller, Budweiser - are brewing winter beers.

Europe is the original home of winter beers and ales. The story goes that monks saved their best ingredients to make a hearty beer to celebrate Christmas. In fact, winter brews are often called Christmas beers.

But these brews predate even Christianity in Europe. Brewers in the pagan days would add spices and herbs to make concoctions that had body and higher alcoholic content. The goal was to create a beer or ale with more heft - the better to see you through the long, cold winter months.

Wassail, for instance, is a drink that dates to the pagan end of the Dark Ages. Most recipes today include sugar and fortified wines, such as sherry, but the base of wassail is beer and ale.

Recently, I decided to taste-test some winter brews and enlisted the help of an informal wine club of which I am a member. We meet monthly in what is strictly a scholarly pursuit.

The members agreed to set down their wine goblets for one night and do a blind tasting of winter beers and ales.

Since we couldn't hope to taste all of the brands (at least not in one sitting), I visited Jack Lee's Foodery on North Second Street in Northern Liberties and selected a half-dozen brands that represented a range of brews: local and foreign, ales and beers.

You can probably find these particular beers at any good six-pack store in Pennsylvania, and certainly in New Jersey. Jack has one of the best selections in Philly, both at his new store on Second Street and at the original Foodery at 10th and Pine Streets.

My panel of seven judges was asked to assign a letter grade to each contestant. I averaged the scores to create a ranking.

As it turned out, two of the brews were clear favorites and are highly recommended; two posted mid-range scores but are recommended. Two ended up in the fuggedaboutit bin. The prices per bottle listed are what I paid at the Foodery.

Let's begin with the winners:

Stille Nacht, De Dolle Brouwers, Esen, Belgium. $4.65 for an 11.6-ounce bottle. 12% ABV (alcohol by volume). Grade: A-

A classic winter brew from - where else? - Belgium. Dark, hearty and spicy - "like apple cider," as one judge put it. Beware: It does pack a punch. It is 12 percent alcohol by volume, more than double the level of most lagers (Budweiser is 5 percent ABV).

My wine-loving judges were wowed by the complexity of this Christmas beer - and you can't get more Christmasy than calling it Silent Night.

"It doesn't need food," said one judge. "It is food."

Judges thought it was a great sipping beer. "It would go well with a nice fire," said one. "And a cigar," added another.

Weyerbacher Winter Ale, Weyerbacher Brewing Co., Easton, Pa. $2 for a 12-ounce bottle. 5.6% ABV. Grade: B+

This came in a close second to the Belgian beer, and that's a real compliment to Dan and Sue Weirback, who founded Weyerbacher in 1995 and have been producing creative beers, ales and stouts ever since. This is an English-style strong ale, dark amber in color, with, as one judge put it, "a lovely balance of hops and malt."

Searching their kit bags for words to describe the taste of this winter ale, my judges came up with chocolatey and coffee-like. One said it had "nice espresso undertones." Two of my seven judges found it too bitter for their taste but still admired its complexity. "If this was wine," said one, "it would be a barbera." At $2 a bottle, this brew is a bargain. It also had a comparatively low ABV.

Seriously Bad Elf Ale, Ridgeway Brewing, Oxfordshire, England. $6.25 for a 25-ounce bottle. 9% ABV. Grade: B

Brewers love to put elves on the labels of winter brews. This English double ale takes it a step further.

The word for this nut-brown ale is drinkable. Judges thought it was smooth, clean and direct - but neither complex nor terribly interesting.

On the other hand, as one judge put it, "the only taste it leaves is happiness." Another judge called it "an all-night brew - the kind you start with and end with."

Bell's Winter White Ale, Bell's Brewery Inc., Galesburg, Mich. $2.35 for a 12-ounce bottle. 4.5% ABV. Grade: B-

This wheat-based ale was pleasant to drink, but it didn't have much character. "Somewhat bland," was what one judge said. "More like a light beer." There's nothing much winter about it at all, except the name and the snow scene on the label. In fact, one judge called it a summer ale - light, smoky, but one-dimensional.

Corsendonk Christmas Ale. Brewery Corsendonk, Oud-Turnhout, Belgium. $4.65 for a 12-ounce bottle. 8.5% ABV. Grade: C

This brew is from one of the distinguished abbey breweries of Belgium, but my judges gave it the thumbs-down.

It strives for complexity and depth, but can't get it right. "It has no class and no balance," said one judge. "It is not in harmony."

"It is almost two beers," said another judge. It begins with a blast of sweet - overly sweet - and ends with a bitter, metallic aftertaste. "Aluminum foil" is how one judge described it.

An expensive failure.

Mad Elf Ale, Troegs Brewing Co., Harrisburg. $3.20 for a 12-ounce bottle. 11% ABV. Grade: D+

This dark brew sounds delicious. The label calls it an "ale brewed with honey and cherries." But it tasted syrupy sweet and medicinal.

"Do you know what this tastes like?" one judge asked after one sip. "Robitussin."

"Not to me," said another. "To me it tastes like Diet Cherry Pepsi."

"Robitussin with a little carbonation," said a third.

Enough said. A dud.

Contact Tom Ferrick at tferrick@phillynews.com.