The days start to get short. The temperatures start to drop, and the wind starts to pick up. The Oktoberfests and pumpkin ales of autumn are receding into the rear view mirror. Winter is, if not quite here, on its way in. And most importantly, that means winter warmers are back for the season.
Most beer drinkers likely have a good idea of what the style is: dark, sweet, spiced, rich brews that serve as a good a way to warm up and toast the season. But technically speaking, there are no hard-and-fast rules at all. In fact, winter warmers are one of the most loosely defined styles in the world of beer.
Officially recognized as a "Winter Seasonal Beer," a subtype of "Spiced Beer," by the BJCP's official guidelines, the style has little of the technical specifications you'll find in most other styles, stating simply that winter warmers are "beers that suggest cold weather and the Christmas holiday season, and may include holiday spices, specialty sugars, and other products that are reminiscent of mulling spices or Christmas holiday desserts."
Put simply: if it tastes like Christmas, it's a winter warmer.
That means you can find examples of the style that fall all over the map – light ones, dark ones, hoppy ones, mild ones, and imperial ones. Generally speaking, though, a winter warmer is likely to be dark in color with a deep, chewy malt body, low hop presence, higher-than-usual alcohol presence, and a healthy amount of wintry spices like allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, or cloves.
It’s important to make sure that it’s a beer first and spices second.”
Beers that do add spice are said to follow the wassail tradition, wassail being a kind of traditional mulled beverage, usually cider, that was made with winter spices – cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, etc – and enjoyed as part of wassailing, a precursor to caroling that involved lugging around a bowl of wassail from door to door and offering a pour to your neighbors (while singing) in exchange for gifts.
While some veer into a darker stout-like territory, most warmers resemble a kind of deep ruby or dark brown color with a sugary kind of richness akin to a strong Belgian ale. They're usually ales, though some dark strong lagers have been made, too. And many brewers toss in specialty fermentables – molasses, honey, brown sugar – to contribute a distinctive sweetness.
"A wide range of aromatics is possible," notes the BJCP in their definition of the style, "although many examples are reminiscent of Christmas cookies, gingerbread, English-type Christmas pudding, evergreen trees, or mulling spices. Any combination of aromatics that suggests the holiday season is welcome."
That said, you don't want something that's overloaded with spice, alluring though the aromas may be. "It’s important to make sure that it’s a beer first and spices second," says Shaun O'Sullivan, co-founder and brewmaster of 21st Amendment Brewery. "Nobody wants the opposite, such as a cinnamon and nutmeg drink that may or may not resemble a beer." For their winter warmer, Fireside Chat, they take a carefully chosen selection of spices – just enough so that no single spice overwhelms the others, or the overall flavor of the beer – and add them both in the whirlpool and in the fermenter to maximize flavor and aroma while brewing.
While the tradition of drinking festive, higher ABV beer during winter holidays goes back a very long time, Anchor Brewing in California is considered to be one of the originators of the modern-day style, and their Christmas Ale has been brewed every year since 1975 with a slightly new recipe and tree-laden label each year. This year's label features the Santa Lucia fir, a rare breed of tree native to Central California.
Great Lakes Christmas Ale, one of the other most iconic winter beers, was inspired by Anchor's version. "One of our brewers returned from a trip in California," Great Lakes says, "where he sampled a number of beers being made with an array for spices and herbs. Dan and Pat [Conway, co-founders of Great Lakes,] were aware that Anchor Brewing would create a special beer for Christmas that they’d give away as gifts — Pat believes their beer incorporated spruce tips at the time."
The two loved the idea, and aimed to tweak it by creating a brew that tasted fully like Christmas, with all its accompanying spices and warmth. They've been brewing it ever since, and this year marks the beer's 25th anniversary. "It’s arguably one of the most — if not the most — iconic [winter warmers] available," Great Lakes says, "and it’s humbling to see so many breweries offering up their own takes on this now celebrated style that we feel we’ve helped develop."
On that note, here are a handful that are worth picking up, should you come across them during the holiday season.
Anchor Christmas Ale
The original winter warmer that inspired a generation of brewers to create their own versions. Anchor's recipe and label changes each year, but it's always a standout offering during the holiday season. This year's rendition has, as per usual, heavy malt body and a deep brown color with a twinge of ruby, and some toasted nut and dark chocolate character in addition to the winter spices you'd expect. Smooth, creamy, toasty, and brewed with a secret blend of spices, Anchor's winter warmer is a perfect example of the style, as rich with flavor as with history.
Rohrbach Kacey's Kristmas Ale
Rohrbach, the 25 year-old craft brewery in Rochester, NY, is based in a city with a long history of brewing beer. And according to owner John Urlaub, "One of the first seasonal beers I ever had, in the late 80’s, was Anchor Steam Christmas Ale. It's still one of my favorites, and I knew Rohrbach’s had to have a Christmas beer." It's named after his daughter, Kacey, who was born in December on the year Rohrbach opened.
Their version doesn't follow the standard Christmas ale formula, such that it is. Rather than using any specialty fermentables or wintry spices, Kacey's Kristmas Ale uses a brown ale as the base, increases the malt body to make the brew fuller and stronger, and then adds cherries to layer in fruit flavor. That plays well with the dark chocolate and roasty coffee notes that the dark malts impart, giving it a dessert-like flavor that's reminiscent of holiday sweets.
Great Lakes Christmas Ale
Here's another prime example of the winter warmer style that's full of every kind of flavor you could hope for when you hear the words "Christmas ale." That's partially because Great Lakes helped pioneer and popularize the style, following Anchor's lead. "The style didn’t really exist when we first brewed it," they say. And while they're a fairly large brewery these days, they still brew with real cinnamon sticks, fresh ginger (cut by hand by the brewers), and local Michigan honey – no extracts or artificial flavorings.
The flavor is a beautiful mix of spice and sweetness, with ginger and cinnamon upfront, balanced by the syrupy honey notes and a heavy, medium dark malt body. It contains all the warm, sweet, spice notes you'd want in a beer for the holiday season, but doesn't go overboard by becoming too sugary or overly spicy.
21st Amendment Fireside Chat
This is yet another winter warmer that was inspired by the original Anchor Christmas Ale. "As a fan of Anchor Brewing Company before I was ever paid to brew beer, their Christmas Ale has always been a favorite and it’s where our Fireside Chat can credit its lineage," brewmaster Shaun O'Sullivan says. "The first time I ever visited Anchor was on a trip to the Bay Area and I was able to tour the brewery the day after Thanksgiving. In the past, this was the day they would traditionally release their Christmas Ale. I had it that day and I’ve been hooked ever since."
21st Amendment, located in San Francisco just like Anchor, makes their version with a rich blend of crystal, abbey, and chocolate malts, plus cocoa nibs from nearby Tcho Chocolate in Berkeley. The result is a strong, sweet, and moderately spiced dark ale with just a little bit of bittersweet chocolate character. In the past, O'Sullivan would go to a nearby grocery store with a wall full of intriguing spices and carefully select a blend to add to the beer, changing the selection each year. Lately, though, he said he's settled on a mix that works perfectly — though, like Anchor's, the specifics are a brewery secret.
Boulevard Nutcracker Ale
One of Boulevard's first seasonal offerings, Nutcracker has been brewed every winter since '95 – another example of the old guard of winter warmers. That's not to say it follows exactly in the footsteps of Anchor and Great Lakes, though, since Boulevard's rendition packs a much heavier hit of hops. The malt base is still strong, with a lot of sweet, toasty caramel flavor, and the recipe uses golden brown sugar and dark brown sugar to amp up the richness and fill out the body of the beer.
But what makes things interesting is that this is one of the few beers that follows the English tradition of of not adding any spice (as opposed to American and Belgian versions, which have no such restrictions), relying instead on zingy hops to contribute a bit of zest. There's a large dose of Chinook (with lesser amounts of Magnum and Cascade) hops in the boil plus another round of dry-hopping (again with Chinook), all of which contributes a a spicy and floral nose and a fair bit of spice and bitterness in the body.
If you buy some, look on the label on the bottleneck – that's where Boulevard prints every employee's name and how long they've been at the brewery as a bit of fun. The employees are randomly spread out across the labels and mixed among six-packs, and according to Boulevard, the staff looks forward to the release every year for their small bit of fame.