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10 best winter beers

Settle down for the festive season with a dark, warming brew

Winter beers usually have notes of dark fruit, roasted barley, chocolate, coffee and bitter hops ( iStock )

As the nights lengthen, the crisp cold lagers and IPAs that quenched our thirst during the hot summer months have less appeal, so seasonal brewers begin to turn their attention to producing winter beers, and we’ve been on the hunt for Britain’s best of them. But what actually constitutes a winter beer?

Real ale organisation Camra runs a prestigious Champion Winter Beer of Britain competition so we asked Nick Boley, Camra’s national director responsible for running the award, what defines the category: “Winter beers are much better suited to a colder climate. Much darker in colour, ranging from a deep amber to a rich black, winter beers will have distinctively festival flavourings, including notes of dark fruit, roasted barley, chocolate, coffee and bitter hops. The emphasis is on strong flavours and a full mouth-feel, rather than being a thirst-quenching or refreshing drink choice, as you may find in the summer.”

These styles will include the likes of old ales, strong milds, stouts, porters and barley wines and, although some brewers produce them all year round, many are only available during the winter months. So over the next few months Camra’s members will be busy guzzling strong, dark beers, with the winners announced in February. One of last year’s wintery wonders, Siren’s chocolatey breakfast stout Broken Dream, was so impressive that it went on to be awarded the overall Champion Beer of Britain award, seeing off all of those lagers and IPAs in the process.

We’ve been working our way through some of country’s best winter beers that are available to buy online and have put together this temptingly toasty selection of exciting new brews along with a few older favourites – we’ll find out next year if Camra’s members agree with any of our choices.

Mount Saint Bernard Abbey Tynt Meadow, 7.4%: £2.69 for 330ml, Beer Hawk

There was much excitement earlier this year with the release of the UK’s first Trappist ale, courtesy of Leicestershire’s Mount Saint Bernard Abbey monks. Thankfully they’ve delivered a fantastic beer, which has all the boozy malty and yeasty hallmarks of a Belgian Trappist ale, while being unmistakably English due to the home-grown ingredients used. It’s dark with nutty tobacco flavours and hints of dry fruits, and has a bitter depth to it – all of which we think makes it a perfect cold weather sipper.

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Anspach & Hobday, The Porter, 6.7%: £3.40 for 330ml, Noble Green Wines

London porters were once the most popular style around and if they all tasted as good as this you might wonder why they didn’t remain Britain’s favourite beer. Anspach & Hobday’s version is one of the best, reviving the old style with modern brewing methods and ingredients to produce a richly delicious dark drink that has layers of every kind of roasted malt flavour you can imagine. These include chocolate, coffee and toasted nuts with a dry bitterness, light tang and a sweet drizzle of toffee swirled into the mix. Big flavours that make for porter perfection.

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Hillside Brewery Over The Hill, 3.5%: £2.80 for 500ml, Hillside Brewery

Decent dark or ruby milds can be elusive beers to track down so if you ever spy one from Bateman’s, Sarah Hughes, Moorhouse’s or Teignworthy then snap it up. For our take home suggestion we’re pointing you towards Over The Hill from Gloucestershire’s Hillside Brewery. They’ve managed to get a lot of creaminess into the beer with some sweet cocoa perfectly balancing out the dry roasted malt flavours. It may not quite meet Camra’s strict criteria but it’s certainly dark and toasty enough for us this winter.

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Orkney Brewery, Dark Island, 4.6%: £2.99 for 500ml, Beers of Europe

Orkney Brewery’s Scottish Old Ale has been impressing punters for years, being as popular in far flung places of the world as it is in the northernmost part of the UK, and is one of the main reasons the brewery has become so successful. It has a multitude of wintery flavours going on: dried fruit, chocolate, burnt toast and even some oakiness that might lead you to believe it’s a stronger, more mature beer than it is. If you do want to whack up the alcohol then you’ll have to seek out their 10 per cent Dark Island Reserve instead.

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Fourpure Oatmeal Stout, 5.1%: £2.00 for 330ml, FourPure

Thanks to FourPure’s rapidly growing success this can is fairly readily available in shops and usually at a good price. If you think all stouts are thick and heavy going then this will be a lighter relief – while still possessing a full bodied, creamy texture, it’s effortlessly easy to drink with silky and milky chocolate flavours and moderate coffee bitterness.

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The Kernel Export Stout, 7.3%: £3.15 for 330ml, Hop Burns & Black

London beer expert Des de Moor recently described the Kernel as “arguably London’s second world class brewery alongside Fuller’s”, citing its Export Stout as an example of its brewing excellence, and we couldn’t agree more. It’s based on a London stout recipe dating back to 1890 and is full of deliciously dark flavours. We notice a slight fruity tang up front, before the smooth and rich roasted goodness smothers the palate, finishing with some charred, hoppy bitterness. (Note: the alcohol content varies with different batches.) 

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Siren Old Fashioned Barley Wine, 11%: £5.29 for 330ml, Beer Hawk

Finding a good barley wine can be trickier than hunting for a dark mild. Few British brewers seem to embrace the ancient English style but, thankfully, we can usually rely on Siren to come up with the goods. This nut brown liquid is the kind that has tasters shouting “Christmas pudding”, so full it is of dried fruit and sweet nuttiness, and it would certainly make a fine accompaniment to the festive fare. And if you think you can also detect some vanilla and whisky notes then those will be down to the beer’s ageing in bourbon barrels. 

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The Durham Brewery Imperious, 12%: £5.49 for 500ml, Beer Hawk

Imperial stouts this strong usually come in small packages, so the six whole units of alcohol in this mighty bottle need to be handled with care. Aged in whisky casks, it immediately smells boozy and there’s a sweet sherry-like alcohol taste throughout that offsets the more bitter roasted notes of dark chocolate and burnt toast. Lots of modern imperial stouts are thick and oily: this one is much thinner, tempting you to to turn tentative sips into dangerous gulps.

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Fuller’s Vintage Ale, 8.5%: £6 for 500ml, Waitrose

We can’t tell you exactly what Fuller’s 2018 limited edition Vintage Ale tastes like because, at the time of writing, it hasn’t been released. But what we can tell you is that it’s one of the most eagerly anticipated beer releases of the year and will be snapped by beer enthusiasts not only to gleefully sup over the winter months, but also to store for future years. These richly flavoured, bottle conditioned ales are designed to age and, like fine wines, older releases are much sought after by collectors (the 1997 vintage is currently listed at £515). We think they’re too good not to enjoy now, so buy at least a brace of them if you’re planning on becoming a beer investor.

Available from November

Fyne Ales Origins Kilkerran Wee Heavy, 7.6%: £8.79 for 375ml, Beer Hawk

The Wee Heavy is Scotland’s most celebrated strong winter ale style – rich and malty like a barley wine but, being in whisky country, often with a tinge of peat on the palate. Fyne Ales are building a good reputation for experimental brewing and it’s barrel-ageing in casks from the Kilkerran distillery that lends this beer its slight peatiness along with an obvious kick of whisky. You also get some fruit and leather in the soft-bodied beer and a dry finish that is peppered with spicy tannin.

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The Verdict: Best winter beers

It’s not always the case that a beer matches the anticipation for its launch, but Leicestershire’s Trappist monks have managed it with aplomb, so make this the first of many winters in which to enjoy their Tynt Meadow.

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.

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