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In Bellingham this year, winter came early– really early. Fall was short and sweet, like the festbiers and autumn ales that came with it. Now that we are nearing a daily temperature of 30 degrees, it’s time to enter a new season and embrace a new style.

Perhaps the broadest category of beers, winter warmers, like most things, are part of a spectrum. Ranging in color, taste, and style, Bellingham’s breweries are providing an array of early winter brews. Sure, a well-made IPA hits the spot year-round, but there’s something about winter warmers that helps our palettes ring in a special change of pace.

But, unlike IPAs, stouts and porters, a winter warmer isn’t necessarily a specific style of beer. Then what the hell is it?

Winter warmer is a label used to describe a category of beers from several different styles that have common winter seasonal qualities. Brewers have lots of freedom on what they want to consider their winter warmer– typically they are red/brown in color and have a considerable amount of maltiness and often some level of spice. An IPA, a stout, or a porter could all fall under the umbrella of winter warmer if the brewer chose to call it one.

There are two traditional types of winter warmers, but of course, with the evolution of the craft beer world, not every winter warmer falls under one of these categories: Strong English Ale or the Spiced Wassail. Wassails were one of the many kinds of hot, spiced beverages (wine, mead, beer) from back in the day, hundreds of Christmas’ ago.

This year in Bellingham, there are already a few winter warmers on the tap radar, whether they are yearly returners or new seasonal ales that are only here as long as supplies last. Regardless, there are multiple varieties of winter warmers (and beers that are generally better in the winter) in town that we’ll be relying on all season to do just that.

Aslan Brewing Co.

Winter Warmer Red IPA

For this years winter warmer, brewer Frank Trosset decided to stray from the traditional winter warmer and head in the hoppy direction. Last year, Aslan’s winter warmer was a filtered altbier with a winter twist on it, but this year they went for an unfiltered Red IPA after tweaking the existing recipe. While this IPA holds a lot of the characteristics of a typical Aslan cloudy but full-bodied IPA, there are subtleties that lend to classic winter warmer qualities, like notes of caramel and chocolate taken from the malts, that pair well with the Mosaic, Cascade and Sterling hops. This decision to go in a different direction is a win for those Bellingham beer drinkers that may not necessarily love the dark and spicy beer that comes with this season.

Boundary Bay Brewery

Cabin Fever Winter Warmer

Boundary Bay does it again with the return of the Cabin Fever, their delicious and surprisingly strong winter ale of seasons’ past. In regards to appearance, this beer is the definition of a winter warmer with it’s deep ruby-brown color. Thanks to it’s extra long cool conditioning period, it’s nice and smooth from start to finish, even though it’s 8.5% ABV. There’s a certain level of very subtle spice to it that complements the maltiness making it a very satisfying and very delicious winter ale. The best part? It comes in cans! Even better? Boundary Bay will never let you go beerless. You can literally get cabin fever and drink a can of Cabin Fever without leaving your house. The new van delivery service will bring you Cabin Fever right to your front door.

Kulshan Brewing Company

Kitten Mittens Winter Ale

If you like winter beers, there’s a 99% chance you’ve had this Kulshan classic and look forward to it’s release every year. Kitten Mittens, beyond it’s catchy name, is a well-rounded winter ale and a Bellingham favorite, that is delicious on draft and honestly just as good in cans. It’s made with four different malts (2-row, Choc., Roasted Barley and Munich) giving it the deep roasty notes we taste and a mouthfeel that leaves you wanting another can. It’s medium-bodied and drinkable, with chocolatey and earthy hop notes, thanks to the Apollo, Willamette, and Fuggle hops. This beer is 7.4% and dangerously smooth.

Structures Brewing

Rising Omen Porter

While Structures isn’t calling this a winter warmer, this beer is still roasty, spicy, and a great excuse to step into their tap room and warm up. Their robust porter creates a smooth transition for you into the cold winter months and is multi-faceted in flavors and smells. There are notes of coffee, cinnamon, and dark chocolate to round out their full-bodied and complex porter. They even released a vanilla version of Rising Omen, just two days after the original was released. Take your pick of sugar or spice, because both are currently on draft at the taproom now.

Chuckanut Brewery

Kaffee Dunkel

While it’s far on the other end of the style spectrum from the winter warmers and porters on this list, if there’s something Chuckanut knows how to do write, it’s a dunkel. This Munchener lager is roasty, malty, and mahogany in color, with just enough toasted bread and coffee notes to differentiate it from the Great American Beer Festival gold medal  winning Dunkel. Chuckanut partnered with Primer Coffee on this one, making a perfect beer for those who may want something roasty and sweet but on the lighter side.

Chuckanut also just released bottles of their Bock Lager, another dark and drinkable German style lager with nutty and sweet subtleties, now available in their brewery, and will stick around all winter long.

Wander Brewing

Nitro Chestnut Brown

You’d be lying if you were a fan of the darker beers and said you’ve never indulged in a delicious and smooth nitro beer. Wander put out a brown ale on nitro using all of the chestnuts from a fall harvest. Luckily, while fall was short, chestnuts still emulate the roasty and nutty flavors that come along with the winter time, making this a delicious way to celebrate the season.

Bellingham has it’s hands full this year with winter beers, ranging from winter warmers to dark, sweet, and coffee lagers. The best part is that there’s way more than where these came from.

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Layne Carter
Tap Trail's Assistant Editor, Layne Carter, grew up in Spokane, Washington but has spent the last five years in Bellingham studying journalism at WWU. When she’s not beertending around town, you can find her biking, drinking beer or biking to a number of local breweries for a beer.

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