Bottoms Up: winter beers

We are gathered here in the Berkshires for this thing called “Winter Study.” Under normal circumstances this name is only half of a misnomer: it’s winter, but there’s usually not much “study” occurring. Despite rigorous syllabi for courses such as “R.L. Stein’s Life and Work,” Williams students tend to emphasize the non-academic elements of life. But with temperatures rising into the 60s you can drop the “winter” too. If we’re not wintering and we’re not studying, what the hell are we doing here?

Drinking beer and watching football, that’s what. Hoping to keep the spirit of winter, we chose to look at five winter beers. In reviewing these beers we considered typical qualities like smell, taste and finish, but we also added a criterion. In the spirit of the football season we will compare the qualities we conjure up to particular NFL players.

The first beer we sampled was the Winter Ale from Portland, Maine’s own Geary’s brewing company. Winter beers tend to be darker than their fair-weather counterparts, but this one had a light amber color – the lightest of those tested. We figured that the arctic frosts of Maine lightened the color, but then again, we’re just philosophy majors. This beer was inviting to the nose, with hints of some kind of nut and honey. The taste was similarly sweet. Honey dominated the palate, and it left us with a lingering, one-dimensional sweetness that we didn’t enjoy. You don’t get into the playoffs with a performance like this. We thought of it as boring, so despite its sweetness we compared Geary’s Winter Ale to Vinny Testaverde.

Next up was the Wachusett Winter Ale. Coming out of Westminster, Massachusetts, this beer seemed like a hometown favorite. Its color was also a relatively light, medium-amber. Cherries, other berry flavors and cinnamon dominated the fragrance of this aromatic beer. It finished crisply and very softly, with a subtle sweetness from lingering cherries. We like how balanced this beer is; it can work well in any situation, and its subtle fruit notes made it surprisingly well-received by the women in the room. For this reason we assigned this beer to Tom Brady.

Our resident Vermonter could hardly contain his excitement when we opened up the Middlebury-born Otter Creek Winter Ale – it was almost like Phish got back together. This beer was a deep mahogany – maybe one shade darker than a football. Despite its intense color, it had a very fruity nose, with strong raspberry and chestnut notes. The taste was overwhelmingly fruity, and though the chestnut flavors helped to balance this fruit, the sweetness lingered. It finished clean and sweet, without being too syrupy. This beer couldn’t hold up to the pressures of balancing big flavors, and seemed like the kind of beer that would cry in the locker room after a tough game – much like Tony Romo.

Next on the list was Pennsylvania’s own Stoudt’s Winter Ale. This beer was far and away the darkest, and its opaque, onyx color reminded us of Guinness. It claims to be brewed with real cocoa, though we were surprised by how subtle the cocoa aroma was in this beer’s nose, as it was balanced by the smell of raw hazelnuts. This beer was very big and rich in taste. It was also full of contradictions: the once subtle cocoa becomes much more pronounced in the taste, and the nutty flavors somehow become roasted in taste. This beer’s paradox is the fact that it finished crisp on the tongue while finding a way to linger with a dry sweetness. It blew us away. No matter what your opinion is on controversial antagonisms, you have to respect its talent and bold attitude – much like Terrell Owens.

Lastly, we sampled Sam Adams’ Winter Lager – you should transfer to Amherst if you don’t know where it’s brewed. This was the sole “lager” that we tasted. Lagers are different from ales because they use bottom-fermented yeast, as opposed to ales’ top fermenting yeast. One of your tasters thinks this gives lagers a fundamentally more pessimistic attitude on life, but again, we’re just philosophy majors. This dark amber-colored beer had a dry nose, with subtle hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. The taste was well-balanced, with suggestions of dried apple and cinnamon dominating. After sampling such full-bodied beers, this one was weak and watery by comparison. It is a balanced, spiced winter offering, but it just can’t stand up to the pressures of a harsh, New England playoff season, which sadly conjured up images of all the NFL teams who just didn’t make it to January this year, particularly the woeful Miami Dolphins.

When we look for a “winter beer” we expect a beer that will get us through a long, cold season. The Sam Adams and Geary’s offerings were too weak to achieve this goal, and the Otter Creek was too fruity. The Wachusett’s balance and versatility is not to be missed, but the bold, unapologetic attitude of the Stoudt’s tops all and is our pick for the big game.

Prices per 6-pack: Geary’s Winter Ale: $8.99; Wachusett Winter Ale: $8.99; Otter Creek Winter Ale: $7.99; Stoudt’s Winter Ale: $9.99; Sam Adam’s Winter Lager: $8.49