Northwest Winter Beer Festival

by Mattie John Bamman | Photo © Mattie John Bamman

Pairing food and beer is one thing, but Christmas cookies and beer? And not just any beer: winter beers, such as Midnight Sun Brewing’s Arctic Devil, a 13.2% barley wine aged in whiskey barrels. Winter beers aren’t typical brews, and likewise, holiday beer festivals aren’t typical beer festivals. Picture rooms full of jolly beer lovers clad in ugly holiday sweaters, reindeer antlers, and faux Santa beards—you may even see a full-fledged Santa or two. This mix of holiday camaraderie and high-alcohol specialty beers makes winter beer festivals the most spirited of the year. But what exactly constitutes a “winter” or “holiday” beer? In Portland, Hopworks Urban Brewery brewmaster Christian Ettinger provides a professional perspective.

“When I think of holiday ales, I think of kicking off my snowboarding boots after a powder day. I’m sitting in a ski lodge after getting my ass kicked on the mountain, and all I want is to sit in front of a fire with a big plate of nachos and a great beer.” They keep you warm; they aren’t for sipping on a palm-tree-studded beach.

While each brewer has his or her preferred styles and flavors, in general, winter beers are dark, potent, and complex. Some incorporate spices, such as nutmeg and cinnamon; others add molasses, coffee or chocolate; and many are aged in wine or bourbon barrels, creating a soft mouthfeel and adding notes of vanilla or whiskey. The one thing that all brewers seem to agree on is a high-alcohol level, not a problem for holiday revelers.

“I always have an elf take me home; Santa never drinks and flies,” said Santa, just one of 13,000 attendees at last year’s Portland Holiday Ale Festival. Good advice, considering the festival takes over Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland for five full days each December and features more than 100 beers from West Coast breweries. Heated tents keep beer lovers warm, and clear plastic roofs let in views of the city’s skyscrapers as well as the official holiday tree twinkling overhead. The beers themselves have particularly spirited names, too, such as Stickmen Brewery’s The Twerking Elf and 10 Barrel Brewing’s Beernog.

Also in December, the Seattle Winter Beer Festival (washingtonbeer.com/winter-fest) offers the widest beer variety of any winter festival in the Pacific Northwest, serving roughly 150 beers from around 50 Washington brewers. Taking place at Hangar 30 at Magnuson Park and catered by food trucks, it is the perfect introduction to Washington’s holiday ales.

To finish off winter-beer-fest season and to combat an average high temperature of 22 degrees in January, The Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival brings breweries from around the globe to Anchorage. It is the capstone to Alaskan Beer Week, and it’s the one festival each year that nearly every Alaskan brewer attends; in fact, roughly 50 percent of the Alaskan beers poured aren’t even available in Anchorage except during the festival. Uniquely, you can participate in in-depth tasting sessions led by renowned brewers. This can be particularly helpful when trying to wrap your head around the concept of barley wine.

With an ABV of around 12% or more, barley wines are more complex than typical beers, and their flavors can be enjoyed much like those of a port or whiskey: something to be sipped and cherished. “It’s a night cap,” says Hoodoo Brewing brewer Bobby Wilken. “It’s for sitting in front of a fire with friends.” This might just be in order after a day of celebrating the holidays with droves of fellow beer lovers.