Winter beers are a must this time of year for craft beer aficionados. The darker, fuller-bodied, and often elegantly spiced winter beers are just what you need during this cold season. Winter beers are tailor-made for the cold—because they can be enjoyed at room temperature or even warmed to take off that winter chill. While winter beers are often referred to as Christmas beers, they are appropriately enjoyed all winter long.
Winter beers vary in style by country, with American winter beers typically containing more spices, while English winter beers tend to have a sweeter finish. Whatever your taste, there is a winter beer out there for you to enjoy. All you need is a little guidance and perhaps a few tastings to see what appeals to your individual palate.
For those who like to experiment with brewing their own beers, winter beers are ideal because they involve a lot of creativity with different flavors and techniques. (Plus it gives you something to do to avoid the cold outside.) The following article from Brew Your Own describes in greater detail what makes winter beers unique as well as advice on how to brew your own winter beers.
Winter Seasonal Beers
When the weather turns cold, it’s time to seek out the king of all seasonal beers — winter ales. Brewed stronger, richer and more full-bodied, these beers taste great alongside a roaring fire or when hoisting the holiday cheer with friends.
Evocative of the season, winter ales have a tradition in the US, the UK, Belgium and elsewhere. English winter beers are normally called winter warmers, and tend to be dark, full in body, sweet and stronger than average (5.5% ABV and up). They are rarely spiced. American winter beers are usually called Christmas or holiday beers, and are almost always spiced. Belgian winter beers are often slightly stronger (by 1–2% ABV) versions of flagship beers. If they are spiced, the spicing is usually more subtle than American versions.
It’s difficult to describe winter seasonal beers in traditional style terms, since it’s always possible to find exceptions to any description. Perhaps it’s best to just say they are seasonal offerings that have something “special” about them — stronger, darker, spiced, hoppier — basically whatever the brewer wants to do as a gift for customers and that is somehow suitable for the winter season.
I find most English winter warmers to be very malty with a full body and sweet finish. Flavors typical of English Christmas puddings are common — figs, molasses, toffee, caramel, raisins, prunes, dried fruit and so on. In general, they are not roasty but feature dark caramel and dark fruit flavors. As the name implies, a winter warmer should have some alcohol warmth. Beers of this profile are sippers — it’s hard to drink them quickly. Some of my favorite examples are Young’s Winter Warmer, Harvey’s Christmas Ale, Hook Norton Twelve Days and Fuller’s Old Winter Ale.
American Christmas beers can be based on a variety of styles, but are often an amber or darker-colored malt-focused beer. Spices that are associated with Christmas cookies, potpourri and mulled cider are common — cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, clove, orange peel and others. Additional fermentables — molasses, honey, dark candi sugar, treacle, Lyle’s Golden Syrup — are often used to add another flavor dimension. Anchor’s Our Special Ale is a classic example, but is unusual in that it uses a different recipe every year. Many examples have a flavor similar to gingerbread cookies. Spices should be noticeable but not overpowering.
Belgian winter beers are often named Noël/Christmas or Hiver/Winter, and can be based on any style. Some are spiced, and orange seems to be a popular flavoring. I like the Dupont Avec les Bons Voeux (with the best wishes), DeKoninck Winter Koninck, Jenlain Bière de Noel, St. Bernardus Christmas and my personal favorite, De Dolle Stille Nacht (Silent Night, or Christmas Eve) which is primed with honey. They are all completely different beer styles, but all have that special holiday gift theme that makes them both rare and enjoyable.
Brewing Christmas Ales
To explore the style, I’ve found five Christmas ale recipes that have won best-of-show awards in sizeable competitions. The Beer Judge Certifi-cation Program (BJCP) database lists 1,161 best-of-show winners since these records have been kept. Of those, only eight beers were Christmas ales, and four of those were in winter beer competitions. The four brewers who won those open competitions are represented here; congratulations to them, and I thank them for their help in this article. One recipe is mine (my first best-of-show, incidentally), and the four others are from Ben VanderMeer, John Zelazny, Dean Priebe and Reed Vander Schaaf.
All the brewers agreed on using darker malty styles as the base for the recipe, several of them choosing stouts of some type. John Zelazny said “choose a beer style that is malt-oriented; hops are not the king here.”
The brewers also agreed that residual sweetness is important to the character, and that the best examples often suggest desserts. Dean Priebe described his Sleigh Fuel as “thick on the tongue and sweet” and “resembling Christmas cookies.” Ben VanderMeer credits his wife Elly with coming up with the idea for a hearty match for homemade mincemeat pies and gingerbread, and to be used as Christmas presents. He said “the FG can be high to balance the aggressive spicing; I used a lot more crystal malt than I normally would to add sweetness and depth.”
The use of spices draws strong opinions, as expected. Again, there is near unanimous agreement that spices should be complementary, not dominant. John Zelazny said “too many spices overwhelm the taste buds and turn these beers into a train wreck.” Dean Priebe uses spice extracts (vanilla, orange, cinnamon) and adds them to taste; he says “the base beer should stand on its own and the spices should add an extra dimension.” Reed Vander Schaaf selected the unusual star anise to complement his strong stout, and toasted the spice to bring out the flavor. He isn’t a fan of allspice or clove, so he was looking for something to stand out in competition. My selection of Christmas spices was straightforward, mirroring Christmas potpourri.
Stronger beers can age for years, so consider vintage dating them. I agree with Dean Priebe that these beers also make great cask ales. I have made mine several times to be served on hand pump at Christmas parties …
Craft beer fanatics are especially fond of winter beers because of their full-bodied flavor. Now is the perfect time of year to enjoy dark, palatable beers without the heat of the summer getting in the way. Lighter beers served chilled help combat the summer sun, while winter beers help add extra warmth to one’s insides.
Are you interested in purchasing some winter beers to add to your collection? Julio’s Liquors offers a wide variety of craft beers for your enjoyment. We also frequently host beer tastings, so stop by and sample some of the best domestic and imported winter beers in the world.