Winter: it’s not just for nog.
Rather than showing up to your mandatory office party or awkward ugly Christmas sweater party with a box of wine or a case of corporate-owned macro lager, opt for some holiday cheer from Pittsburgh’s ever-expanding, always-improving craft beer scene.
Most breweries’ winter beers take one of two forms: big, boozy stouts or winter warmers. The former is self-explanatory: rich, dark stouts that approach (and often exceed) 10% alcohol by volume (abv). Winter warmers are typically amber-red to dark brown ales that are big on malt and supplemented with seasonal fruits or spices like cinnamon and nutmeg to create a robust flavor profile (think Great Lakes’ spiced Christmas Ale, or Tröegs‘ honey and cherry kissed Mad Elf).
We’ve broken this list down into two parts. The first is for beers that have been bottled and canned, while the second is for beers that must be enjoyed at the brewery itself. Worry not: virtually every local brewery offers 64 oz. growler fills on-site, and some will also do 32 oz. “crowler” cans to-go.
Bottle and Cans:
Troy Hill’s Penn Brewery offers not one but two holiday beers: their Nut Roll Ale is a nut brown ale brewed with cinnamon, vanilla and lactose to give it a sweeter flavor redolent of the holiday dessert.
For traditionalists, go with the St. Nikolaus Bock, a European-style Bock beer that Penn has offered for 15 years. With St. Nickolaus himself on the bottle, it’s perhaps the most festive packaging you’ll find. Both beers are available in six-packs and cases at local distributors. Penn also offers a 22 oz. Brewer’s Reserve doppelbock version of St. Nik that clocks in at 9% — definitely one for sharing. It took home Silver in the 2011 Great American Beer Festival in the German-style doppelbock category.
Rivertowne Brewing has cans available of its Rudolph Red, a hefty 8.2% imperial red ale “with a bountiful cinnamon finish” to complement its malty backbone. Another local favorite comes from Full Pint, whose Festivus brown ale is available in six-packs (and inside Full Pint mix cases). It’s brewed with cinnamon, vanilla and mace. You can even head to Full Pint’s brewery in North Versailles December 23 beginning at 4 p.m. for their annual Festivus Party, complete with food from Pittsburgh Smokehouse and the requisite airing of grievances.
Hitchhiker Brewing Co. brewers Andy Kwiatkowski and Matt Gibb are keeping busy with their new Sharpsburg brewery and canning line. During the first week of January they will release at both their brewery and Mt. Lebanon taproom 16 oz. cans of Sift Through, a pastry stout modeled after cannoli that’s brewed with cannoli shells, confectioners sugar, cherries, pistachios, cocoa nibs and milk sugar. Keep up with their Facebook page for the exact release day, and while you’re there, look for Speculoos for the Rest of Us, a brown ale collaboration with Leona’s Ice Cream that is brewed with cookie butter and then conditioned on Leona’s speculoos cookies and spices.
East End Brewing Co. has gotten into the pounder can game and will release 16 oz. cans of its popular winter ale, Snow Melt, December 14 at both the brewery and Strip District taproom location. The next day they’ll release cans of their Toaster Imperial Stout aged in bourbon barrels. It weighs in at a hefty 9.8%. Finally, on the 16th, they will release cans of their Farkleberry Pale Ale, fermented with blackberry and blueberries. (It isn’t really a holiday beer but you can still drink it just the same.)
Draai Laag has available at their Millvale taproom bottles of their seasonal release, St. Angus, a “Christmas-spiced Belgian style Abbey Ale” brewed with orange blossom honey, clove, ginger, cinnamon and orange peel. Roundabout in Lawrenceville will release bottles of their annual barrel-aged old ale offering, Heini’s Good Cheer, December 17.
If you find yourself in Washington, PA, visit The Washington Brewing Company on December 17 for the bottle release of two versions of their Isiminger’s Oatmeal Stout, one aged in a barrel from Liberty Pole Spirits and another from Red Pump Spirits, both of which are local distillers.
Finally, there are seasonal offerings from a pair of breweries that are kind of/sort of Pittsburgh-based: Fat Head’s, which opened it’s first location in Pittsburgh 25 years ago and brews today in nearby Middleburg, Ohio, and Lakewood NY’s Southern Tier, which opened their popular North Shore satellite location last summer.
Fat Head’s has two popular winter offerings, both of which are available in cases and six-packs: Holly Jolly, a Christmas Ale brewed with honey, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and coriander; and Pimp my Sleigh, a heady 10.5% Belgian-style ale brewed with dark candi sugar and “secret spices.” Southern Tier has a number of holiday offerings in-store, including 2XMAS, a spiced double ale, and a flavorful Cinnamon Roll imperial ale that’s a meal in itself.
Looking for great growlers of cold-weather beer? Turn the page to find out where to find them.