Warming Up to Winter Beers
During the winter and holiday season, beer drinkers often look forward to the limited-time appearance of the small production, seasonal brews known as holiday beers and winter warmers.
Generally, holiday beers are often malty and complex however there are no real rules for how they are brewed. Some are made with fruit or spice and some rely on specific malt or hops combinations for added complexity. Winter warmers are similar though they are rarely made with any added flavours. Both typically contain more than the usual levels of alcohol and tend to be available between November and February.
This variation in style and taste is likely why even brewers, writers and beer enthusiasts run into trouble when trying to describe or analyze the seasonal winter beers.
A bit of history will reveal that in the days before hops were used as a beer preservative, brewers often resorted to mixes of herbs, spices, and even tree bark and peppers to help stabilize their brews. Special mixes of these herbs and spices were used to brew beers to celebrate winter solstice and other cold-weather season festivals.
Centuries later the ale brewed for these winter festivals was introduced to a spiced loaf called yule cake. A slice was placed in the bottom of the bowl and warm ale floated it up toward the brim. Participants then passed around the cup with merriment until both the ale and yule cake was gone.
In more modern times, brewers recognized a market for limited-run winter beers.
Under normal circumstances, a brewer strives for consistency in styles, with only subtle differences to demonstrate the brewer's skill and creativity. Winter warmers are different, as they seem to embrace diversity. In fact, a significant number of breweries push the style even further, and deliberately vary their winter recipe from year to year.
Despite the variances, winter beers tend to have some common characteristics:
• Stronger than most other beers in a brewery's repertoire
• Usually run from copper to deep amber in colour
• Higher in alcoholic content
• Spices used most often include nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice, but some might include cloves, ginger, licorice, molasses, coriander, or curacao
• Display intense complexity and unique, warm aromas
Some winter beer lovers feel they should only be served at cellar temperatures, but others recommend drinking them cold in a snifter. To truly enjoy the uniqueness, don't drink too fast. Nurse the glass, allowing the beer to warm between cupped hands, which will release the distinct aromas and tastes.
Due to the higher than normal alcohol levels and added spices, holiday beers also tend to cellar well over a period time and require only cool, dark storage.
So this winter season; find your favourite winter beer, buy a few extra and put them away for the rest of the year – for when you just want to enjoy the unique difference that is the winter warmer.