In many cities across the United States, the first licks of winter have already tickled noses, ears, and toes, inspiring the donning of sweaters, furry hats, and padded boots. The cooling climate also signals the release of big, bold beers with warming spices, high alcohol, and robust flavors to warm us up. Of course, I’m talking about winter ales -- seasonal favorites with much more going on than you may think.
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"The winter ale is a tradition from British brewing," says Fal Allen, brewmaster at Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Boonville, California. "[During a UK] winter, it’s nice to have a bigger, warmer beer to sip fireside. In the days before central heating, a nice strong beer was often the answer to taking the edge off."
Though it dates back to at least the 1600s, the winter ale isn't technically an official style like IPA, witbier, or stout are. Also called a winter warmer, the strong, usually dark ales that fall into this category were first brewed in Northern Europe to help give imbibers a little liquor-fueled heat. Those original winter warmers sported high ABVs, though many of today's seasonal winter ales are now lower, between 6-8%. ....But not all of them.
"I like the idea of brewing a bigger beer in the winter to help keep the chill off," says Allen. "The British have their winter warmers too, and I enjoy the keeping of a tradition."
According to The Oxford Companion To Beer, up until the 19th century, many unhopped or lightly hopped British ales were warmed up -- literally -- in the winter, often with a dose of ginger, nutmeg, sugar, apples, and in some cases, a slice of spiced toast. The tradition of heating the ales continued until the arrival of hopped beers -- which don't taste best warm. Brewers quit taking fire to beer and started creating darker, headier, and more alcoholic beverages to give drinkers the same cozy feeling.
Though warming spices aren't necessary to make this style, plenty of brewers add cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and clove, which help give the brews a touch of holiday cheer. Add a nice malty backbone to the mix, and notes of sweet toffee, caramel, and buttered wheat bread begin to come forward.
But not all winter ales are identical. Some, like Elysian Brewing Co.’s Bifrost Winter Ale, aren't even dark beers. This brew is a strong pale ale made with Amarillo, Chinook and Magnum hops. Hops, along with the addition of citrus, give the beer a bright and earthy bite that offsets the malty body. Though it might not be a traditional winter warmer, it's been a Seattle seasonal staple for nearly two decades.
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"What makes the Bifrost unique is that during this time of year people tend to brew stouts and spiced ales to evoke the feelings of winter and fall," says Josh Waldman, head brewer at Elysian. "Instead, we chose to brew a more drinkable ale with slight spice and citrus that still holds all the alcohol to keep you warm. It's our version of the whiskey sweater." (And in case the beer doesn't keep you toasty enough, it’s also commemorated as a knit sweater.)
No matter what method of winter warmer you go for, know that the style only sticks around from November until around January, just in time for things to start defrosting on their own. Here are five particularly tasty winter ales we’d recommend drinking in front of a fireplace.
6.2% ABV (Durango, CO)
Each year, this Durango-basted brewery creates the beer in tandem with Venture Snowboards (also based in the San Juan Mountains), manufacturers of the powder-loving Euphoria snowboard. This brew might pour light, but the body proves bold, with a bitter and toasty sweet flavor. You won't get any of those warming spices some winter ales are known for, but with each sip you're sure to feel the rich and satisfying heat. It's an obvious shoo-in for winter sports, or for those who like to watch winter sports indoors.
8.3% ABV (Seattle, WA)
The nose on this Seattle brew might be the spiciest thing about it. Otherwise, it's a balanced pale ale with a strong, malty bite. "Yeast has the inherent ability to hide alcohol content. You don't taste the alcohol, necessarily, but the beer still has a warming booziness to it," says Waldman. "You get the slight spice and citrus zest paired with a nice warming booze that makes for a delicious combination."
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6.1% ABV (Fort Collins, CO)
For over a decade this Fort Collins brew has had a special place in my cold, city girl heart. I always bought a six-pack of it when I visited my family in Colorado for Christmas, and it hasn't changed much over the years. The brew is robust but crisp, and offers a pleasing caramel essence that conjures thoughts of sugar plum fairies. A true winter warmer, this ale makes coming home feel right.
6.9 % ABV (Boonville, CA)
"Winter Solstice is a traditional British style warmer brewed with a little more alcohol to help warm those chilly nights," says Allen. "It has a rich, smooth caramel flavor and a hint of spice." Take a sip, and you’ll notice a lightness to this brew that many other winter warmers don't possess. Perhaps that's because the brew is made in California, where the weather's less frigid than in other parts of the country. Overall, the beer offers a nice balance of fall spices, and a juiciness that makes you want to sip from the bottle again and again.
7% ABV (Chicago, IL)
Of all the U.S.-brewed winter warmers, this one out of Chicago might be the closest to what the Brits drink on a cold December night. ....Or at least what they should be drinking. The copper-hued ale proves husky with intrepid notes of burnt fruitcake and toasted marshmallows. It's a strong-bodied brew that will heat you from the inside in the best way possible...as long as you can get your hands on a bottle.
Note: Elysian Brewing is a member of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch.