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.