This time of year can cause confusion among Southwest Florida's craft beer lovers.
The shelves at the local liquor stores are flush with holiday beers and winter seasonals that complement frozen temperatures in much of the country. These brews, typically higher in alcohol, are meant to warm the body on frigid nights.
With temperatures regularly in the mid-80s in Southwest Florida, drinkers in Manatee and Sarasota counties, for example, don't need any more heat. Instead, they need something refreshing to go with a tropical holiday.
"I've always been kind of a stout guy," said Fort Myers Brewing Co. owner and brewer Rob Whyte, "but those stouts are normally reserved for colder weather. We don't seem to get that down here in Florida."
Luckily, a holiday beer can be anything a brewer wants. While other seasonal beers have clearly defined styles -- like Oktoberfests, pumpkin beers and Maibocks -- winter servings run the flavor gamut from light and fruity to dark and heavy.
While suckers stuck in the snow and ice up north sip their imperial stouts and barleywines, the discerning drinker in Southwest Florida has other specialty beers available this winter.
"There's a huge, wide spectrum of styles that represent 'holiday beer,'" Naples Beach Brewery owner and brewer Will Lawson said. "It seems like holiday beer is open for
Lawson's favorite winter seasonal is Celebration Ale, and India pale ale made by Sierra Nevada in Chico, Calif. Many holiday beers have a sweet, malty flavor with alcohol percentages approaching double digits. However, Celebration Ale focuses on the bitter bite of hops.
Celebration Ale is one of the best-selling winter beers at Total Wine & More in Naples. Store manager Chris Yff said drinkers gravitate to the lighter holiday ales rather than the heavy beers meant for colder weather.
"We have a couple beer geeks who love the big, heavy, high-alcohol winter beers no matter what the temperature is," Yff said. "But the average Joe isn't going to buy them because they won't sit by the pool and have them. With the Celebration Ale, they might."
Belgian beers are popular during the winter because they have the big bodies, fruity flavors and high alcohol contents to hold up to the weather and a heavy holiday meal. Lately, a lighter Belgian has gained momentum during the season -- witbier, a lighter wheat beer.
Bell's Brewing from Kalamazoo, Mich., makes a Winter White Ale that is an easy-drinking witbier for the Florida holiday. Sam Adams from Boston recently released White Christmas, a wheat beer made with holiday spices.
A new style of beer, the white India pale ale, also has popped up recently and could be a hit at Christmas dinner. The style combines the hops and bitterness of an IPA with the sweetness of a wheat beer. New Belgium Brewing from Fort Collins, Colo., makes a White IPA holiday seasonal called Accumulation (as in snow) that's available in Florida.
"A white IPA is a good winter beer for Florida," said Walt Costello, owner and brewer at recently opened Point Ybel Brewing Co. in Fort Myers. "It's got a cool color plus all that tropical-ness that is unique to the area."
Of course, if you still love traditional holiday beers, there are plenty available locally. Costello's favorite winter seasonal is Olde School Barleywine from Dogfish Head in Milton, Del. It can be found at Total Wine.
Whyte said his favorite winter beer is the one he brews himself, his oatmeal stout available on tap at the Fort Myers Brewing Co. He also plans to brew an eggnog stout with lactose and spices to give the dark beer the flavors of the classic holiday drink.
"When it's warm, you like to have a nice refreshing beer," Whyte said. "That's harder to do with holiday (beers) because of the higher alcohol. It's pretty much all summer styles year round down here."
FIVE TO TRY
Want to bring a special beer to Christmas dinner but can't stand drinking a heavy winter warmer in the Southwest Florida heat? Here are five holiday beers that don't fit the mold of big body, big alcohol that most winter seasonals follow:
Christmas Ale: Anchor Brewing Co., San Francisco
If there was a Craft Beer Hall of Fame, this would be a first-ballot selection. From the brewery that kick-started the craft movement 50 years ago, Christmas Ale is perhaps the longest continually made winter beer out there. Each year, the recipe is slightly different. The 39th edition is ripe with smells and tastes of dark fruit with a creamy body that is light enough to enjoy in the tropics.
Shiner Holiday Cheer: Spoetzl Brewery, Shiner, Texas
Holiday Cheer is a Bavarian dark wheat beer, meaning its deep chestnut color belies its light and fruity flavor. It's brewed with peaches, giving it a refreshing quality for a Florida holiday. The pecans in the brew give it a nutty, wintry feel.
Yellow Snow IPA: Rogue Ales, Ashland, Ore.
Much tastier (and safer to ingest) than actual yellow snow, this India pale ale is bitter yet sweet. The American hops give it a pine smell similar to a live Christmas tree. The hop bitterness up front doesn't overpower the sweet malt taste, giving Yellow Snow great balance for your holiday dinner.
2XMAS: Southern Tier Brewing Co., Lakewood, N.Y.
At 8 percent alcohol, this seasonal brew will warm you up on a chilly night. However, with plenty of sweet and spice flavors, it's drinkable on a warm Bradenton afternoon. It's brewed with figs, orange peels, cardamom, cinnamon, gloves and ginger, plus some wheat malt to keep it light.
Sugar Plumn Brown Ale: Cigar City Brewing Co., Tampa
As its name implies, Sugar Plum is packed full of candied flavor and will go well with dessert. It's a brown ale, so it's nutty and full-bodied, but is made with traditional Christmas spices -- cinnamon and ginger. Brewed in Florida, the beer is a modest 5.5 percent alcohol, making it easy to sip even if it's warm out.