Embrace Winter Chill with Creative Craft Beers

Highland Brewing CompanyEmbrace Winter Chill with Creative Craft Beers

Highland Brewing Company's Cold Mountain is a much-anticipated early winter release

While winter may be a time for some of us to hunker down in front of the fire and reflect, the craft brewers scattered across North Carolina are busy experimenting, creating unique offerings suited for cold-weather sipping. With ingredients ranging from persimmons to jalapeños, these beers and ciders challenge the palate and accentuate the season. Two highly regarded festivals also highlight the winter brewing months.

At the same time, the state’s vineyards are hard at work with the fall harvest, but always welcome you to their tasting rooms to discover wines with which to take the chill off in front of a fire.

All in the Ingredients

Probably the best-known winter beer to this point in the state’s brewing history is Highland Brewing’s revered Cold Mountain Winter Ale, released each November to fevered anticipation that results in the supply disappearing virtually overnight.

Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, which bills itself as making “plow to pint” beers, is using persimmons, a misunderstood and maligned fruit, to produce its award-winning First Frost. This selection is aged six months and deemed perfect for winter sipping.

Just up the road in Hillsborough, Mystery Brewing likes to keeps patrons guessing with its barrel-aged, small one-off batches – some based on historic recipes or something with a twist. Its winter line-up features a Scottish ale, English IPA, Black Saison and Chocolate Breakfast Stout, which is described as “seasonally appropriate.”

The Winterfest Munich Dunkel is a cold-weather favorite at Natty Greene’s in Greensboro and Raleigh. It’s a malty German brown lager, while the brewery’s Old Town, available January through March, is a brown ale that emphasizes hoppiness.

With a name like Sexual Chocolate, you can bet tasters line up to try this one out in February at Winston-Salem’s Foothills Brewing. Aged in bourbon barrels, this muscular imperial stout promises notes of espresso, molasses, toffee and, of course, dark chocolate.

Heading east to rural Farmville, the crew at dark beer specialist Duck Rabbit Craft Brewery contend that while any season is a good time for their Milk Stout, it’s an especially nice cold weather sipper. Stop by in January for the release of the very hoppy Barleywine Ale and mid-March for the robust Rabid Duck Imperial Stout, colorfully described as “thick, jet black and oily in texture, made for sipping by the fire.”

Local blackberries take center stage at Mother Earth Brewing in Kinston with introduction of the seasonal Blackberry Window Pane, a double Belgian Style Wit beer fermented with vast quantities of fruit and aged in pinot noir barrels for three months.

The Charlotte-area brewing community also takes the cold months seriously. D9 Brewing Company in Cornelius maintains Battle Hymn Black IPA in its regular roster of “Fanatical Ales.” Starting there, the brew crew then transforms it into the hefty 10.5 percent Black Ice Winter Double with notes of chocolate, oak and whiskey. According to the brewery, “you’ll never see this one coming.”

At Birdsong Brewing in Charlotte, the Pride Abbey Ale is designed to keep you warm during those colder months of the year. But these guys turn up the heat with Mexicali Stout, fueled by a hint of chili spice, and the Jalapeño Pale Ale with an infusion of fresh, hand-cut jalapeños for a satisfying slow burn.

And never underestimate the craft brewers dotting the mountains of North Carolina. You never know what to expect at Fonta Flora Brewery in Morganton with its dedication to unique Appalachian styles of beer. You can fool yourself into drinking healthy with the Alpha vs. Beta Carotene, an IPA made from local carrots, or the salty Oyster Stout. Or see what pops up in the winter – could involve beets or kiwi or wild flora from the mountains.

One of the state’s newest breweries, Innovation in Sylva, gets festive with a gingerbread brown ale and a cranberry wheat, then rolls out a bourbon-barrel aged imperial stout for the colder months.

In Asheville, North Carolina’s hotbed of craft brewing, you always expect the unexpected during the winter as the breweries both work to outdo each other and, at the same time, collaborate on new creations. Wicked Weed Brewing works hard to stay on the cutting edge, and this winter trots out French Toast Stout, the winner of an employee contest. On the sour side is a new winter series, Moeder, that involves traditional Belgian beers with a twist – Dark Strong, for example, features plum, cranberry and coriander.

On the opposite end of the state, if you’re a cold weather beach bunny, the blossoming brew scene in Wilmington offers promise of a seasonal stout or two at one of its six breweries, including long-timer Front Street Brewery. Plus, three breweries on the Outer Banks pledge to help take the nip out of the ocean air.

Beer Festivals and the Resurgence of Cider

Relatively new to the scene is hard cider, a drink that’s actually been in existence for hundreds of years, and now is finding a new audience as local production expands. Urban Orchard Cider Company is a family-owned endeavor with a bar and tap room in Asheville. Lending themselves to cooler temperatures are a hot mulled cider, a tart cranberry cider and Cidra del Diablo, infused with habaneros and vanilla. Persimmon Cider welcomes in the New Year while Mardi Gras sees the launch of Passion Fruit Cider.

McRitchie Winery & Ciderworks in Thurmond – located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains – is another good place to sample locally produced hard cider, along with the well-respected wines made there.

And there’s no better way to shake off the winter blahs than heading to one of the state’s two winter brew fests. The very popular Winter Warmer Beer Festival in Asheville takes place in January with a hefty selection of local and regional brewers on site. Be sure to purchase tickets early. The Annual Raleigh Rare & Vintage Beer Tasting, also in January, takes a distinctive approach with 40 rare and vintage beers poured by brewery representatives in an intimate environment. And it’s also a hot ticket.

This is all just a sampling of what you'll find across the beer scene in North Carolina, home to 230-plus breweries - more than any other state in the South.

Gary Carter is an Asheville-based travel writer who covers a range of topics for magazines, online publications and his blog, Eliot’s Tales 4 Gen B.

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