I continue to work my way through the winter beers, but there is such a bounty that I have my work cut out for me. (Not like it's ditch-digging or anything.) Two of my recent samples hail from Oregon and are a mixed bag.
Full Sail Wreck the Halls
Since Full Sail already had one winter seasonal, John Harris's cult favorite is called a "brewmaster's reserve." But make no mistake, with a name like "Wreck the Halls," you know it's a holiday beer. After Sierra Nevada's Celebration, Wreck the Halls may inspire the most fervent devotion of any winter ale, but of the two, it seems more worthy to me.
Pours out a warm bronze with a pretty white head, and bursts with aroma. Bursts, as in an orange, sending its citrus into the air like a freshly-peeled fruit. Almost every winter ale will be better six months or a year after it was bottled, but this is the exception--you want to get a bottle while those hops are still so energetic.
There are two central varieties of winter ale, and Wreck the Halls comes from the minority variety, a lighter, IPA-ish ale that is headed down the road toward barleywine. At 6.5%, Wreck isn't that strong, but it manages to produce the kind of thick, candied quality you like from this style. Perhaps because of the citrus nose, it reminded me of a traditional winter desert from a norther country--with dried fruit and the suggestion of liquor. I don't get the love of Celebration, but Wreck the Halls could inspire devotion.
Excellent (with room to grow)
Siletz Winter Warmer Ale
This was not a great beer. It was flat pouring out, an indistinct brown with not much in the way of a head, and had a slightly sour, cidery aroma. The flavor wasn't awful, it just wasn't anything. Very little in the way of hopping, but the malt didn't come forward, either--it lacked mouthfeel or texture or any of the kind of qualities you'd like from a malty beer (nutty flavor, creaminess). I've brewed a few batches of homebrew that have this indifferent quality, and I didn't regard them highly.
Average (at best)