Got the Winter Brews?
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Got the Winter Brews?

In which we rate five seasonal offerings from GTA craft breweries

If you think beer season is over once you’ve packed away your Muskoka chairs and locked up the cottage, think again. The cold winter months are perfect for enjoying heartier types of beers, and Toronto-area craft breweries’ seasonal selections often fit the bill. If you’re the crafty sort—pun intended—a gift basket of local suds is always better than miscellaneous preserves and fruit cake. (Use the LCBO product look-up to track down your favourites.)

We took one for the team, bravely sampling five winter beers that aim to warm you up and make that seemingly endless stream of holiday parties significantly more tolerable.

Great Lakes Winter Ale
750 ml, $6.95, available at LCBO stores

The Great Lakes Brewery, located in Etobicoke overlooking the Gardiner Expressway, is famous for their 666 Devil’s Pale Ale and Golden Horseshoe Lager, but has also become known for its seasonal beers, packaged in made-to-share (well, maybe) 750 millilitre bottles. Their Winter Ale is brewed with orange peel and its sweet smell definitely hints at that, but it doesn’t carry over to the taste. It also would have been nice to experience some of the spices advertised on the label. A major drawback is the price, which could be a barrier to first-time tasters. But the ale does have a nice, full flavour with a good bitterness—not overpowering, but enough to warm you up after a sojourn in the snow. And its 6.2 per cent strength won’t knock you out cold if you decide to keep the bottle all to yourself.

Old Credit Holiday Honey
680 ml, $3.95, available at LCBO stores

If you’ve been weaned on honeyed lager from the big breweries, this beer should throw you for a loop. Why? Because it actually tastes like honey. The folks at Mississauga’s Old Credit Brewery have hit a home run with this one. The Holiday Honey has a nice, full lager flavour with more than a hint of honey on the palate. This beer is perfect for those who are still not quite ready to let go of summer—a winter beer guaranteed to bring on a bout of unseasonable warmth (in your mind, at least).

Black Creek Porter
500 ml, $3.95, available at LCBO stores

If you grew up in Toronto in the ’80s and ’90s, you were undoubtedly dragged to Black Creek Pioneer Village at least once. You probably vowed never to return, lest you be accosted by butter-churning “pioneers” in period dress. Well, in the shadow of that field trip hotspot now rests a brewery that makes some of the best Toronto craft beer you’ve never tried. Their porter, a style of beer created to nourish hard-working labourers, has a great roasted-coffee flavour that comes from the roasted barley used in the brewing process. Unlike some heavier beers, the Black Creek Porter is very drinkable and doesn’t sit too heavy. It’s a glass of comfort right from the first sip.

Amsterdam Wee Heavy Scotch Ale
650 ml, $3.95, available at Amsterdam Brewery

From Toronto’s original craft brewer, Amsterdam’s Wee Heavy is exactly that—a brew with a just enough alcohol to take the edge off a boring office party but won’t leave you wearing the lamp shade at the end of the night. Unfortunately, the alcohol does come through a bit too much in the taste, especially when compared to similar beers with a higher alcohol content. That said, the beer does have a nice malty, sweet flavour and is definitely reminiscent of Scottish and English ales. A few sips left us quite warm indeed. Wee Heavy is great for anyone who enjoys Amsterdam’s Nut Brown Ale and is ready to step up to the big leagues—flavour-wise, that is. If you’re looking to track down a bottle or two, Wee Heavy is only available at the brewery on Bathurst Street, just north of Lake Shore Boulevard.

Muskoka Winter Beard Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout
750 ml, $10.95, available at LCBO stores

Although Muskoka is not technically in the GTA, this beer is too good to pass up, and it’s readily available in the city. Brewed with loads of chocolate and local cranberries, the Winter Beard will definitely fill you up. After all, stouts were used to act as meal replacements in medieval England—a sort of alcoholic Ensure, if you will. And the price, which may seem steep for a bottle of beer, is comparable to what you might spend on a 750 millilitre bottle of wine. The trademark bitterness of a good stout is cut a bit by the sweetness of the chocolate and cranberries, but the chocolate doesn’t overpower the beer. Be sure to take note of the slight red colour the beer takes on when it’s poured into a glass—it’s a nice surprise. But be forewarned: although this beer is 8 per cent, you won’t notice until it’s too late. Unless you’re looking to make a splash at your work Christmas party, it may be best to share the bottle or, better yet, use the swing-top lid to store it in the fridge for a day or two.

Photos by Ryan Charkow.