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Winter Warmers

The season that shall-not-be-named, with the precipitation that shall-not-be-named, is nigh. As if you couldn’t already tell, winter is not my favorite time of year. (Bah-humbug!) However, the beers that we drink this season happen to be some of my all-time favorites – stouts, porters, barrel-aged brews, barleywines; all the decadent and rich flavors that just don’t hit the same when it’s 90-degrees outside. Winter warmers land in this mix of favorite seasonal craft beers as well!

What are winter warmers? Traditionally, a winter warmer is an English strong ale (not spiced) that is simply brewed during the winter months. However, today, it is typical that a winter warmer will be spiced, (which is more akin to the traditional “wassail,” an English ale mulled with spices during the festivities of the holiday season), and thus provides your palate and your insides with a feeling of “warmth.” Some people also refer to winter warmers as Christmas ales, holiday ales, or winter ales. They are all one in the same. 

A winter warmer beer can range in color from red to dark brown with a higher alcohol content ranging from 5-8%. It has a heftier body with a malty base. The spices utilized in a winter warmer include nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon, and may also include additives of maple syrup, molasses, plums, dates, raisins, orange peel, honey, caramel, butterscotch, and nuts. The traditional English strong ale or wassail might be the closest living relative to what passes for a winter warmer today, but before the English, there were the Vikings – and they are truly the originators of this seasonal beverage. 

Vikings brewed a strong and malty, barley-based beer that they produced as an offering to their Norse gods during “Jul,” a celebration held during the winter solstice. These old, pagan traditions were so ingrained into the Scandinavian culture that by the time Christianity was introduced, everyone, including the religious elite, kings, and priests, right down to the common folk, continued many of the same practices, including brewing said beer. In Norway, King Haakon the Good, who reigned from 934-961AD, mandated every household in his kingdom to brew beer in the Christmas season, and the Norwegian Gulating Laws, in the 13th century, required that every home must brew beer AND host a “party” of sorts with other households or else be punished by said law, up to and including fines, loss of property, and even exile!  

A rough translation of a portion of the Gulating Laws reads: 

“Yet another beer brew we are required to make, man and wife from equal amounts of malts, and to bless it Christmas night in thanks to Christ and St. Mary, for a good year and peace. 

If this is not done, three marks must be paid to the bishop. But if someone sits three winters without doing so, or cannot pay the fees that we have added for our religion, and this can be proven, then he has forfeited every penny of his worth. The king shall have half, and the bishop the other half. But he may confess his sins and make church penance and stay in Norway. If he will not he shall leave the realm of our king.” 

Now that you have a basic history and run-down of what constitutes a winter warmer, it’s time to actually try it for yourself! There are several winter warmers that continue to be produced year-after-year, and for good reason, because they are tried and true. 

Harpoon Winter Warmer Holiday Ale, 6% ABV, 23 IBU (Harpoon Brewery, Boston, MA) – Brewed since 1988, this beer combines the subtle sweetness of caramel malt with spice additions of cinnamon and nutmeg. This is a very drinkable, very spice-balanced beer.

St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, 10% ABV, 20 IBU (Brouwerij St. Bernardus, Watou, Vlaanderen Belgium) – Christmas in a bottle, this dark, full-bodied winter ale has zesty notes of aniseed with hints of caramel and fire-roasted chestnuts. It finishes with flavors of dried fruits and chocolate. Helpful hint: Though this is a Belgian-brewed beer, you can find this locally at Wegmans.

Great Lakes Christmas Ale, 7.5% ABV, 30 IBU (Great Lakes Brewing Company, Cleveland, OH) – This classic winter warmer is decked out with fresh ginger, cinnamon, and sweet honey. If you’re a big ginger fan, this one is definitely for you.

Winter warmers brewed closer to home: 

Old Man Winter Ale, 7.5% ABV, 35 IBU (Southern Tier Brewing Company, Lakewood, NY) – This brew is going to be the least spiced of all the aforementioned. With more of a traditional English ale feel, the beer has toasted malt notes along with notes of baked bread, caramel, toffee, and dark dried fruits with a touch of piney hops thrown in. 

Prison City Nutcracker Holiday Ale, 5.9% ABV (Prison City Brewing, Auburn, NY) – This is a brand-spanking-new holiday ale brewed with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and orange peel. There is malt complexity giving way to caramel notes with citrus aromatics from the orange peel, while the specifically chosen spices were added to enhance and balance the beer as a whole. (Kitty Hoynes is offering this beer in Syracuse if you can’t make the drive out to Auburn!) 

…And while it may not be a winter warmer in the traditional sense, I would be remiss to not give the cider-drinkers their due: 

Downeast Cider House Winter Blend, 6.5% ABV (Downeast Cider House, Boston, MA) – The cider is combined with nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove, and aged on toasted oak, making the blend intriguingly unique. 

Happy holidays, Brew Time readers, and cheers to the new year ahead!

References: https://vinepair.com/articles/christmas-ale-viking-history/

Kristin Merritt
Just your average craft-brew loving gal slinging your monthly pour of beer education and the low-down on all things beer related in the immediate CNY area and beyond. Along the way I hope to give a few recommendations for your grocery list, events to attend, and local hotspots to hit-up for shenanigans with friends, ideas for date night, or at the very least enlighten you with a bit of random knowledge to use towards trivia night or simply give you and your teammates a suggestion on what to drink at the bar! Cheers!