Of all the excuses we conjure up to justify an increase in our drinking, the presence of a holiday (or an entire holiday season) is near the top of my hypothetical, “Why Am I Drinking Tonight?” list. So I’ve been using the “it’s a holiday” excuse for a solid month or so straight, and now it’s time to move to the next great excuse for drinking: “because it’s damn cold outside.”
Just as people like to day-drink in the sun with a light lager (because high atop the aforementioned list is “because it’s a beautiful summer’s day”), we prefer our winter time drinks to be hearty and robust and filling. These drinks should be dark, sweet, and strong. And although we craft beer aficionados drink solely for the flavor and craftsmanship, we want our winter beers to be strong enough to warm our insides to help stave off the chill of the night.
An old ale is the perfect beer for the frost covered season of winter. The style is a close cousin of both American and English style barleywines. They are complex, full bodied beers that are brewed to mature well or to enjoy fresh. In them, there will be notes of caramel and toffee and molasses alongside a low to moderate amount of carbonation. Drink them at cellar-temperature (55 degrees). Old Ales are commonly big beers and pair well with a roasted hunk of red meat, so enjoy them while you feast with friends and family.
That said, the following beers are some of the best (and, as a bonus, easy to find) old ales on the market to enjoy this winter.
Great Divide Brewing
This is perhaps my favorite old ale and definitely the best named beer on the list. Hibernation Ale is the lowest ABV on this list (just 8.7%), but has the heft to help you escape from the cold and the snow. “Ironically,” says Brian Dunn, Great Divide Founder and President, “I actually came up with the recipe in the heat of summer in 1995, sitting on my front porch in shorts and flip flops. I ended up designing a beer to escape the cold when I was trying to escape the heat.” The beer is distributed in six-pack cans from October through December, but you should still be able to find it on the shelves. And with all old ales, there’s no such thing as an “enjoy by” date. It gets better with age.
We chose this because it’s a hybrid style: part old ale, part double IPA. Burton Baton is aged in the largest wooden brewing vessels (10,000 gallon American oak tanks) built since before Prohibition and is, according to Sam Calagione, one of “the most under-celebrated beers” in DFH’s portfolio. Thanks to the hybrid construction, you’ll get a citrusy hop notes holding hands with the vanilla and oak characteristics imparted from the barrel. It’s 10% ABV and available year-round.
No one does big beers like Founders. Curmudgeon is part of the Michigan outfit’s specialty series and sneaks in at just under 10% ABV. Brewed with a ton of molasses and then aged on oak, this beer hits shelves in March and sticks around until April. If you get a four-pack, stick a couple in your cellar, but keep two to drink right away. It’s just as good fresh as it is with a year on it.
While listed as a barleywine, we couldn’t exclude this. It literally says “old ale” in the name. Plus, it’s fantastic. Drink it fresh, and it’s sweet and malty, but finishes with a perfect amount of hop bitterness that can seem overwhelming in American barleywines; Consumed with some age, the hops disappear, revealing a sweeter side in a mellowed out, full-bodied beer. It’s 10.2% and available in six packs. Oh, and Bell’s likes to call Third Coast “the Cognac of the beer world.” So drink it out of a snifter while wearing a smoking jacket.
North Coast Brewing
An old ale is also commonly known as a stock ale because it’s a beer that’s historically been kept at the brewery, so this beer from North Coast in California is an homage of sorts to the rustic beer halls of England. Old Stock is boozy (11.8%, the highest ABV beer on this list) and legitimately hoppy. All of the malts and hops were imported from England for a shout out to authenticity. This beer is like a fine wine, “intended to be laid down,” according to our friends at North Coast. Buy a four-pack, drink one, cellar the other three; Repeat next year.