By Jason Notte
The Street

You don't need to spice up a beer or put Santa Claus and wreaths on the label to make a great winter beer. Sometimes you just need to darken it up and give it enough kick to warm you.

Though it's a great time to sip the last of the fall's pumpkin ales and sample the first of the holiday season's winter warmers, this is also stout season. Though the folks at Diageo Guinness seem more than happy to let mainstream American beer drinkers believe St. Patrick's Day ushers in stout season here in the U.S., American craft brewers use this time of year to introduce their malty holiday porters, creamy sweet stouts and high-octane limited release imperial stouts.

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But how do you tell a porter from a stout? Should it even matter to holiday beer drinkers looking for a tall glass of something warm, dark and lovely? Not really. Blame Arthur Guinness for the confusion, as his recipe for Extra Superior Porter eventually became Guinness Stout. True porters didn't return until the initial U.S. craft beer boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and to this day judges at beer competitions insist stouts are darker, use roasted barley and use less water than porters.

It gets a bit esoteric after that, and even brewers and beers experts don't believe there's much separating porters and stouts beyond what a brewer decides to call it. Writer Adrienne So summed it up in far greater detail for Beer West back in March, but drinkers shouldn't trifle themselves with such distinctions this winter.

There are a lot better reasons to enjoy these seasonal stouts and porters than their names alone. Here are some examples of stouts and porters that are a perfect fit for the cold months ahead:

For more of craft beer's
seasonal porters and stouts
go to
TheStreet.com.

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