Understanding Winter Warmers and Their Place in Your Beer Fridge

Sure, the cold months of the year are usually dominated by stouts and porters – dark, heavy beers that offer a lot of flavor and complexity. However, they’re also the time of year when craft breweries release their latest winter warmers. What the heck’s a winter warmer and why should you consider opting for one of these rather than that bottle of stout? If you’re not entirely clear on the place of a warmer in your beer fridge, here’s a handy primer.

What’s It About?

Let’s start the discussion with a look at what a winter warmer actually is. You can get a clue from the name – “warmer”. They’re brewed to “warm you up”. Not with actual heat, but through a higher ABV. These beers usually have an ABV of roughly 6% to 8%, but some craft breweries put out options in the 10% range if you’re feeling particularly chilly.

Really, this is a catchall term applied to various winter seasonal styles. For instance, Christmas ales are a type of winter warmer, but the category extends well beyond this. They tend to be darker beers, but not as dark or heavy as stouts.

The Difference between European and American Winter Warmers

While winter warmers definitely got their start across the pond in the UK and Europe, they’ve become popular here in the US. Of course, American brewers have put their own stamp on these brews. The most obvious example of this is the fact that most American brewed variants are spiced, whereas UK and European ones are usually not spiced. Smoking is actually more common for certain types of warmers brewed in Europe (not too many US breweries do the smoke thing).

There is one exception here – UK wassail-style warmers. These are strong, spiced winter ales that taste a lot like mulled cider. They generally contain things like nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander and the like, but they’re also hopped.

The Malt/Hops Equation

Malt and hops are both used in brewing winter warmers, but not in the same proportions you’d find in a beer designed for spring or summer. In warmer months, beers tend to be lighter and hoppier, with less malt. In the winter, beers get darker, with a much heavier malt bill and only enough hops to provide some flavor, but not much in the way of bitterness.

This leads to winter warmers being noticeably sweeter than their warm-weather kin, and the use of more malts can also give them a fuller mouth feel and more body (again, not on par with a robust stout). Of course, using more malts (and darker roasts) means that these brews tend to be darker, ranging from deep red to black.

Prime Examples

Winter warmers aren’t new to American craft breweries, and you’ll find many examples of the style on the market once the mercury starts plummeting. Here are a few of the options you’ll find available (depending on the distribution in your area, of course):

·      Old Fezziwig Ale (Sam Adams – probably one of the most widely available options)

·      Winter Solstice Seasonal (Anderson Valley)

·      Odell Isolation Ale (Odell Brewing)

·      Highland Cold Mountain Winter Ale (Highland Brewing)

·      Winter Welcome Ale (another Sam Adams offering)

·      Jubelale (Deschutes Brewery)

·      Harpoon Winter Warmer (Harpoon Brewery)

·      Brrr (Widmer Bros. Brewing)

·      Prelude Special Ale (Shipyard Brewing Company)

·      Snow Melt Winter Ale (East End Brewing)

·      First Frost (Fullsteam Brewery)

·      Full Sail Wassail (Full Sail Brewery)

·      Sweetwater Festive Ale (Sweetwater Brewing)

Really, this is just a sampling. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of other options out there for you to explore and enjoy. The real problem is one of distribution. Because craft breweries tend to have limited distribution footprints, you won’t be able to find all the options you want at your local bottle shop.

Serving and Pairing a Winter Warmer

There’s an immense amount of variety in this category, so your serving and pairing options are just as widespread. However, there are a few common considerations you’ll want to make.

Temperature: Winter warmers are generally best served at a warmer temperature, like a stout. This allows the complex aromatics to really come to the fore, so you get the full experience from the palate to the aroma and the mouth feel. Serving them too cold will dull the taste and aroma, and won’t really give you the best experience. This is particularly true with spiced warmers and wassail-style ales. You really want to let those warm up a little so the spices really stand out.

Glassware: The right glass can make a huge difference in your drinking experience. While some beers do well in almost any glass (but not the bottle or can), that’s not really true with winter warmers. You want a glass that will let you really get at the aroma (smell is a huge component of taste, so if you’re not getting the nose of your beer, you’re missing out). A nonic pint would be a good option, as would a regular pint glass, or even a tulip goblet for one of the darker, more aromatic varieties.

Pairing: Like a good wine, a good beer can be paired with many different foods. Pairing a winter warmer correctly will really depend on the type in question (spiced, not spiced, smoked, etc.). If the version you’re enjoying is sweeter, consider pairing it with a dessert food (apple pie or chocolate cake, for instance). If it’s not so sweet, it might work with meat (steak or turkey), or it could be one that’s best enjoyed solo so you can truly appreciate the brew. Really, it’s your call here, but don’t be afraid to experiment.

What are your favorite winter warmers out there? Do you prefer the US style with liberal spices, or do you gravitate more toward the traditional European style without much in the way of spices?