Beer: Winter Warmer
Brewery: SanTan Brewing Co. (8 San Marcos Place, 480-917-8700)
Style: Winter Warmer
ABV: 9.5 percent
One of the great things about beer is its ability to combat oppressive weather. In the dead of summer, nothing beats back the heat like a frosty pale ale or light lager, and when the temperatures drop below 60 degrees (brr!), there's only one thing to do: bundle up and employ the services of a good winter warmer.
Throughout history, the winter holidays have been matched with beer of fairly high alcohol content and richness. When old friends gather to celebrate the season, the strong, dark flavors and warming finish of a winter warmer provides the perfect end to a cold night. Each brewer's approach to the style is different, though most are based off English strong or old ales. Some follow the "wassail" tradition of mulling a robust ale with spices of the season -- cinnamon and ginger, for example.
SanTan's annual Winter Warmer starts with a traditional English old ale recipe and is then spiced with 10 pounds of fresh ginger and 10 gallons of Arizona orange blossom honey.
Inside a snifter, it's a pretty beer: Caramel malt and other roasted grains lend a deep maroon hue, and there's great clarity despite the darkness. On top is an inch of foam the consistency of fresh, tan-colored snowfall that deposits winding slaloms of lace on the sides of the glass.
Aromas of cinnamon-spiced raisins, caramel, and perhaps some plum arrange themselves in a blend that reminds of bread pudding, accented with notes of gingerbread and earthy English hops. It's like Christmas breakfast at Bob Cratchit's house.
Touch of brandy emerge in the flavor, brought out by sugary alcohol. The front of the flavor is loaded with cinnamon and honey mingled with raisins soaked in the aforementioned brandy. Mid palate, ginger steps up to dance with dark fruits and English hops. Very subtle toasty bread notes settle in after the swallow, while hints of buttery toffee emerge as the brew warms. Altogether, Winter Warmer leans slightly toward the sweet side, but it finishes just dry enough to keep things from becoming cloying. The medium body is like warm blanket on a cold night, enveloping the tongue in supple smoothness while the alcohol heat chases away any chill.
There's a reason SanTan Winter Warmer won a New Times Best Of award in 2010 -- it's a fantastic example of the style that provides delightful warmth when the weather outside gets frightful. Pick it up on tap at the SanTan brewpub in Chandler.
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Food pairing suggestions:
Order Winter Warmer at the SanTan brewpub and you'll get it served with a trifecta of tiny gingerbread cookies, which are the perfect pairing. The ginger included in both beer and cookie resonate, while the brew's raisin-soaked honey sweetness and big alcohol hit dull the cookie's spicier edges.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to good beer.