On the hunt for the best winter beers

by Nick Gonzales

Winter is officially here, and much like the denizens of the fictional Winterfell, Durangoans love their beer — especially when it’s frosty outside.

What makes for a great winter beer? It’s hard to pin it down to any one thing. It’s really in the eye of the beholder, er … palate of the beerholder. If we had to boil it down to a few qualities, we would say that the best brews for when it’s cold outside are those that are darker, hoppier, spicier or stronger than the average beer. And those descriptors perfectly describe a bunch of beers in this very beer-centric city.

No reservations If you’re seeking a beer to thaw your frozen extremities, you could do worse than one from the oldest brewery in the region. Carver Brewing Co. was the second brewpub to open in Colorado, back in December 1988, and it has learned a thing or two over the last 30+ years.

If you ask Carver’s Head Brewer Patrick Jose, he’ll tell you that the brewery’s most iconic winter beer is currently the Brewer’s Reserve – the product of aging the brewery’s Black Bear Imperial Stout in Cinder Dick bourbon barrels from Durango Craft Spirits for eight or nine months. The brewery has been making it every year for the past few years, and using the distillery’s barrels for the last two, he said.

“It’s been wildly successful and really delicious,” he said. “It tastes like coffee, dark chocolate and vanilla, all wrapped in a bourbon blanket.”

And with an ABV in the low double digits, it’s certainly alcoholic enough to give you the warm fuzzies on a chilly day.

Previously, Carver Brewing brewed a barleywine as its go-to coziness-inducing winter beer, but sales of barleywines were slow, so the brewery switched styles in favor of the bourbon-boosted stout.

Double IPAs, such as Carver’s Big Bike Double IPA, are great winter beers as well, Jose said, because they too have a higher than average alcohol content, though not quite as high as their barrel-aged brethren.

“If you like hops, those are great warm beers year-round, but I find myself drinking them more often during the winter,” Jose said.

Toward the end of the season in 2021, Carver Brewing will be digging into another barrel-aged brew — this time, a version of the brewery’s Bears Ears Baltic Porter. (Yes, that makes it a “bourbon barrel Bears Ear’s Baltic Porter.” Try saying that three times fast.)

Sprucing everything upWhile Carver’s Brewer’s Reserve has most local winter beers beat in terms of sheer ABV, the first brew on the lips of every Durangoan we talked to was Steamworks’ Spruce Goose.

The beer, which is based on an English-style old ale, “launches sometime around Thanksgiving, and then when it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Steamworks Head Brewer Ken Martin. It typically dries up shortly after the new year.

The beer is brewed with spruce tips collected near timberline in the San Juan National Forest. These spice it up with a distinct flavor and bless it with the tree’s aroma. It’s very drinkable, with a lingering toffeelike malt flavor.

“When I worked there, making it was awesome,” Jose said, “because you just go to Little Molas (Lake) and pick fresh spruce tips off the trees and take them back to the brewery and beat the crap out of them with the wooden mallet and throw them into the boil. It’s awesome. It’s so good.”

If this all sounds a bit froufrou, like drinking a Christmas tree, consider this: Vikings used to brew spruce needles into their beer to protect them from scurvy on long voyages. Spruce needles, it turns out, are high in vitamin C.

If you’re not familiar with the regional beer scene, it may also surprise you to learn that Spruce Goose is not the only brew of its kind around here. Over in Pagosa Springs, Riff Raff Brewing Co. makes Spruce Juice, a similar beer made in the same style … with a similar name. Head down to Albuquerque and you’ll find Spruce Moose, a stout made by Marble Brewing Co. (As you can probably deduce, we feel there’s no excuse for the profuse overuse of words that sound like “spruce.”)

Anyway, back to Steamworks. If you’re in the mood for something a bit more beer-tasting, try to get your hands on the seasonal Powder Daze Porter — to drink at home, of course.

“It’s kind of a little homage to the Norse snow gods and hoping that it will be a deep winter,” Martin said.

A feeling of EuphoriaNot far behind Spruce Goose on the winter popularity scale is Euphoria Pale Ale, Ska Brewing Co.’s main seasonal fall-winter release.

The beer has a malty backbone with some caramel sweetness and hints of chocolate and toast, but a powerful grapefruit taste and aroma, making it stand out among winter brews.

Euphoria has been around for about 10 years and is a collaboration with Venture Snowboards, named after one of their boards from years ago, said Kristen Muraro, Ska’s sales and marketing director.

“We think it has a pretty good local cult following,” she said.

Indeed, most people we talked to agreed.

“What I like about Euphoria is a) it’s always good, but b) it does have the season in mind when that recipe is designed: It is a fall release that carries them through the winter — I think delicious pale ales are where it’s at,” said Carver’s Jose.

Another winter seasonal for Ska this year is the Malbec Stout, Muraro said.

Brewed with malbec grape, the stout combines the best of two worlds, front-loading a coffee-like aroma and roasted, chocolatey malt flavors — quickly followed by a dark fruitiness and winelike tannic quality.

But wait, there’s more.

If there’s one thing locals don’t love about Euphoria, it’s that its coming signals the end of the Mexican Logger season. The spring-summer seasonal is hands down one of the most popular beers in the region and a favorite of beer critics — but you can only get it in the spring or summer … or can you?

Capitalizing on the love of its warm-weather Mexican lager, Ska will release a new dark-style Mexican lager in January. Like its summer counterpart, it will be 5.2% ABV, but will have a bit maltier and darker style, Muraro said. At long last, there will be a Mexican lager available from Ska — in one form or another — year-round. “Everyone wants Mexican lager year round — which will probably never happen — but there was this need for a darker-style lager for the winter months. And so I think we finally decided it was time,” she said.

Nick Gonzales


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