A heated debate recently arose amongst the Aleheads. Insults were hurled. Bodily harm was threatened.  Gwen Ifill was called in to moderate…

As usual, this debate revolved around that most highly controversial of beers…the Harpoon Winter Warmer.

The Winter Warmer is NOT a good beer. I accept this. It is a poorly balanced, one-note offering, and barely tastes like a brew. It has declined in recent years as it is now brewed with liquid spice and not actual spices…supposedly after some customers complained of spice sediment at the bottom of the bottle.*

*Quick aside: What did you used to call the warm, backwashed, last few millimeters of beer in the bottle? We referred to it either as the “schwag”or the “larry”.

Nevertheless, I like the Winter Warmer…a lot. During our debate, I compared it to Billy Joel. I shouldn’t like his music…I don’t like anything else in his “genre” (adult Top 40). But for some reason, I think Captain Jack, Allentown, Goodnight Saigon, and Leningrad are great songs. The same is true of Harpoon’s much-reviled brew. I recognize why I shouldn’t like it. I don’t particularly like other over-spiced, under-hopped beers. And I clearly recognize that the brewers didn’t even attempt to create a good offering. They wanted to make a spice delivery vehicle masquerading as a beer.

So what’s the story? Why is Harpoon’s Winter Warmer my favorite terrible beer? In a word: nostalgia.

When I was just a wee Alehead in New England, we drank our fair share of the stalwarts like Guinness, Bass, Newcastle, and the horrendous JW Dundee. We also tried our hand at craft breweries like Otter Creek, Pete’s, Blue Moon (pre-Coors buy-out), and a little-known micro in New Hampshire called Nutfield. But as underage teens, our knowledge of the beer world was fairly limited and when our “suppliers” (who shall remain nameless…hi, Dad!) asked us what we wanted to imbibe on those glorious high school weekends, the most common responses were Harpoon and Sam Adams. What can I say? They were local. They were (and still are) making interesting beers. We thought they were the two greatest breweries on Earth. 16-year-olds see things in extreme terms.

I drank a lot of Harpoon…the Ale, the Alt, the IPA, the Octoberfest. But it was around Thanksgiving, when the Winter Warmer showed up on package store shelves, that I got really excited. Look…I didn’t know much about hop profiles. I didn’t know about varieties of malts. I didn’t know how to distinguish notes in a beer’s nose or how to watch the lacing on the sides of a glass (not that I ever drank out of a glass back then). All I knew was that the cinnamon and nutmeg flavors in that dark, malty brew tasted like a distillation of the holidays. Sure, you couldn’t drink more than two of them. And maybe the flavor got pretty cloying after awhile. But every November, with that first sip of Winter Warmer, my mind flooded with thoughts of crunchy leaves, the Patriots getting crushed in the playoffs (this was pre-Belichick/Brady), my Mom’s stuffing and mashed potatoes, and trekking down to the Cape for the holidays.

After graduating from high school and moving away to college, I always managed to grab a sixer of Winter Warmer when autumn came around. And every time, it would bring back fond memories of those halcyon days of youth. Even after the recipe changed and the beer’s quality slipped, I still enjoyed one or two around the holidays. You know how most people hate egg-nog but still enjoy a big, frothy glass of it once a year? Harpoon Winter Warmer is my egg-nog, Max (said in Bill Murray’s voice). They say that the sense of smell triggers more profound memories than any other sense. Supposedly this is because the olfactory bulb is tied to the limbic system…the most ancient and mysterious part of the brain. When that first whiff of spice and malt hits my nose each year, I can see my teenage self…sipping a Winter Warmer in my basement at home…surrounded by good friends…Smashing Pumpkins on the stereo…a layer of pure-white snow on the ground outside. The memories so thick…you have to brush them away from your face (said in James Earl Jones’s voice).

How can I criticize a beer that can do that? I know it’s technically not a good brew. I know Beer Advocate considers it an unholy abomination to the beer world. But I don’t care. The Winter Warmer holds a special place in my heart…and it always will.

8 thoughts on “THE WARMTH OF WINTER

  1. Come on dude, this is just too easy. I like nostalgia too and I have a special place in my heart for Harpoon even though I don’t drink much of it anymore. Hell, if a beer can send you into a fit of hurling (Into the smallest trash can on Earth, and it’s completely my fault), yet you can still appreciate the hop profile of said IPA some years later, that’s a good beer. Harpoon deserves respect, as does any brewer that puts their hard work into something they can call their own. The Winter Warmer though is just a train-wreck of a brew.

    I may not be a good home brewer, but I’ve been able to pull off a spiced pumpkin ale with a ton of ginger, nutmeg, and freshly ground allspice that hits you in the nose but remains pleasing on the palate. I know Harpoon could do that too (With or without the pumpkin) and put my beer to shame, which is why it’s so maddening to me that this garbage is even in their lineup. This concoction from Harpoon is just a bunch of sugar and spice and nothing nice. I don’t even think I’m insulting them with that description as they probably feel the same way. Again, if it’s a marketing thing or just a beer that pays the bills, I really have nothing wrong with that. Obviously there’s a calling as this beer gets dumbed down year-after-year and it still pops off the shelves pretty quickly.

    I hate myself for even having to write this. I thought we could put all this Winter Warmer crap behind us, but obviously I was wrong. I feel sick.

  2. I would just point out that in an earlier post, you declared a love for both Miller High Life and Red Stripe (well…maybe not “love”, but certainly a begrudging respect). If the good Doctor can fondly reminisce about such universally despised beers based on his past dalliances with them, then Brother Barley can unironically enjoy a Winter Warmer now and then.

    We all get our mulligans in life…

    1. Very true, I did put up a post titled “The Best of the Worst”. Out of all my commentary though, one should never lose sight of the the last word in the title. Categorically, they’re still the worst beers. So, if you want to put Harpoon’s Winter Warmer on that list too, then I think we can both agree that it’s one of the worst beers.

      Winter Warmer may not be what the Doctor ordered, but I’ll let you slide on this one.

  3. Hey, I CLEARLY stated that the Winter Warmer is my “favorite terrible beer”. I make no bones about the lack of quality or balance in the brew and had I written the “Best of the Worst” column, it would absolutely have topped the list.

    So I’m not sure we’re actually at odds about anything, but we need to practice arguing anyway. There’s far too much agreement and goodwill on this site.

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