Winter Beers are Here

Winter Beers are Here

A six-pack of the best the season has to offer


Originally published on on December 2009

Beer is so closely identified with summer that most people don’t realize there are brews made especially for winter. Intended for enjoyment in colder weather, winter beers are heavier, richer and higher in alcohol. A subset of these are holiday beers, which are usually flavored with sweet spices and are really only drinkable in small amounts.

In any case, to fully enjoy winter beers, make sure you don’t drink them too cold—just mild chilling should be enough. You certainly shouldn’t gulp them down, as they are intended for sipping. You’ll find they are an ideal accompaniment to cheeses, prepared meats and other rich foods. Here is a small selection of my favorites.

Westmalle Tripel


This is one of my favorite strong beers, especially because it looks so much like a normal, average brew. It is a slightly hazy golden yellow, with a thick white head. But that’s where the similarity ends for this legendary beer from the Westmalle Trappist Abbey in Belgium. It gives off a very floral aroma in the glass, and has a full, almost viscous texture, with muted sweetness like fruitcake. That’s followed by slight bitterness from the aged hops, followed by a brisk yeasty note from the Belgian ale yeast left in the bottle to produce its natural carbonation. The flavors evolve and change in the mouth, leading to a complex, dessert-like character in the long-lingering flavor profile.

Iwate Kura Oyster Stout


This beer is from Sekinoichi Brewery in Iwate Prefecture (, located near Hirota Bay, which is famed for its oysters. First brewed in England over 100 years ago, oyster stout has been revived here and there recently. This version is surprisingly satisfying and drinkable, brewed with four kinds of malt and fermented up to 7 percent alcohol for an extra measure of flavor. The beer is deep brown in color, almost black due to haziness. The head is thick and light brown. There is a crisp, hoppy aroma with some ocean-like notes, though there is no direct oyster smell. The flavor is powerful, with an almost meaty backbone, graced by the tastes of bitter chocolate and dark caramel.

Hitachino Nest XH


Hitachino Nest XH is from Kiuchi Brewery in Ibaraki (, which enjoys such a strong following overseas that half its beer is exported to the States. “XH” stands for “extra high”—this one is the strongest variety they make. The beer is a deep amber color with red highlights, topped with a thin light tan head. At first there is the aroma of sweet fruitcake, with herbal hop notes, followed by a rich and tangy malt profile with a sweetness more like dried fruit. The Belgian yeast imparts a touch of complex sourness, giving the beer a slight port wine flavor, which leads to a muted sweet finish.

Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale


Located near San Diego, Stone Brewing Co. made a name for itself with this strongly flavored ale. In short, Arrogant Bastard Ale is a huge beer with a series of flavors that shout for attention. Short-term aging with oak chips takes this version over the top. The ale is a deep reddish brown, with a light tan head. It begins with a very herbal and woody aroma, with hop bitterness behind, and a full and rich malt flavor. Long after the malty sweetness fades away, the hop bitterness is still hanging in there, lingering on the tongue.

Sierra Nevada Bigfoot 2008


Released every winter, Bigfoot celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It’s from Sierra Nevada of Northern California, a very popular craft brewer that has a strong following thanks to this beer and its Pale Ale. The color is almost like coffee, deep reddish amber, with a thick tan head. It has a tangy, fruity aroma with bitter hop spikes that continue into the taste. After the initial hop shock, there is a huge malty flavor which is offset by the hop bitterness that lingers long in the mouth, with an almost cigar-like quality.

Kinshachi Imperial Chocolate Stout, “Bitter” version


Kinshachi is an ambitious Nagoya brewery known for its miso lager. A recent addition to its lineup, this strong stout actually contains no chocolate, but a combination of roasted malts that gives it a distinctive chocolate character. It is a hazy dark brown, with a thick tan head and relatively little aroma. It comes on with a strong tanginess from the deeply roasted dark wheat malt, backed up by an impressive bitterness. Imagine dark caramels coated with a thin layer of dark chocolate for the initial flavor, which is balanced by some fairly aggressive hop bitterness.

All of these beers, except for Hitachino Nest XH, were purchased at Tanaka-ya in Mejiro. 3-4-14 Mejiro, Toshima-ku. Tel: 03-3953-8888. Open Mon-Sat 11am-10pm, closed Sun. Nearest stn: Mejiro.
The XH was purchased at Osaka-ya in Lumine Est on the east side of Shinjuku Station. B1, 3-38-1 Shinjuku. Tel: 03-3354-2202. Open daily 10:30am-9:30pm.