Winter Beer refers not to a single style of beer but rather, any beer that can be suitably enjoyed during the coldest season of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Historically, this has often meant strong aged beer with notes of caramelized fruit, wood smoke, and Christmas confections. In contrast to summers beers that are light, crisp, and refreshing, winter beers are dark, decadent, and in a sense both invigorating and inviting.
Naturally, several styles of beer can come under the classification, Winter Beer. Many of these however, remain somewhat obscure to the majority of beer drinkers on the planet. The reason for this is that most of the world’s beer consumers reside in relatively warm regions and are completely satisfied with quaffing light lagers and ales all year long. Beer designed to be slowly sipped with the texture of a dry Sherry simply has little appeal.
Even in the cold north, beer takes a backseat during the holidays since for sentimental reasons, many drinkers prefer more traditional seasonal beverages like eggnog or mulled wine. Taking some time to understand the concept of Winter Beer gives some insight into beer history as well as an understanding of some highly praised beer styles.
Burton Ale and Barley Wine
Barley Wine typically refers to a broad range of beer considered to be very strong, not as dark as Stout, and often aged. Within these parameters beer historian Alfred Barnard has described the Arctic Ales brewed in Burton, England for Sir Edward Belcher’s Arctic Expedition. Belcher referred to these beers as a “valuable antiscorbutic” and “a great blessing” on the journey to the frigid north. It was brewed again in 1875 for another Arctic expedition. The head of this second enterprise, Sir George Nares would describe it as “Excellent” before recommending that as much as possible be stowed away for future exploration. Barnard would describe this beer as “vinous” with a “nice brown colour” and a “nutty flavor”. Half a century later, an account of this same vintage would see it described as “mellow as old Burgundy and as nourishing as a beefsteak.” Martyn Cornell, considered by many to be among the foremost experts on British beer sees several difficulties in properly defining Barley Wine as a style. He writes however, that many modern Barley Wines and Winter Warmers are actually modeled after these strong beers from Burton originally made for expeditions into the world’s coldest regions.
In the introduction to the Brewers Publication’ guide to Barley Wine, Fal Allen reminisces that during his time at Pike Place Brewery; “the day we brewed our barley wine was always a special occasion. Even though it was early fall, we would play Christmas music as we brewed, an allusion to the fact that the beer would not be released until the holiday season was in full swing.” He continues; “American craft brewers often release them at or in anticipation of Christmastime, a luxurious gift to customers who have been loyal throughout the year. At least this was the way we at Pike Place Brewery treated the unveiling of Old Bawdy.
Pike Brewing Company describes Pike Old Bawdy as “history in a bottle”. Younger vintages “boast heady herbal aromas” like black tea and floral hop notes while earlier years are “akin to port and amaro.”
Winter Spiced Beer
The practice of adding aromatic herbs to beer can be traced to the Neolithic period, when early humans would add antibacterial plants to fermenting wort in order to protect both the beer and the drinker. Over the course of millennia, this practice would evolve alongside the art and science of beer making. By the middle ages, these herbs would be primarily used to alleviate ailments and improve health, but brewers would soon notice that the thermogenic properties of citrus peel, clove, and cinnamon made them particularly enjoyable during winter.
The Beer Judge Certification Program classifies a Winter Seasonal Beer within the broader category of Spiced Beer and sees them as a “darker, spiced beer that often has a rich body and warming finish”. In terms of spices, “any combination of aromatics that suggests the holiday season is welcome.” Brewers often apply these aromatics to the beer through a mixture of herbs called gruit first used in medieval monastic breweries. Gruit originally involved a variety of botanicals and sometimes included spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Balancing these with other ingredients during the beer making process allows brewers to create aromas that allude to Christmas in unique ways.
Even with the same blend of clove, anise, and brown sugar, a beer made with smoked malt and aged in a charred Bourbon barrel might be reminiscent of a Christmas ham, while one brewed with milk sugar and honey malt would be closer to a traditional Christmas cookie. Both Angel City Brewery and Trader Joe’s sell Speculoos Cookie Beers designed to taste like the traditional Dutch cookie while many craft breweries seek inspiration from cookies like Snickerdoodles, Shortbread, and even S’mores. Many larger companies making this style simply add spices associated with the holiday season to a more mainstream product that already has mass appeal. Samuel Adams Winter Lager is similar to their mass market Boston Lager but spices, clementine zest and their trademark malty character comes together to give hints of freshly baked gingerbread.
The term Scotch Ale generally refers to the strongest beers within the tradition of making malt-forward beer with a minimal hop character. This style developed in Scotland from as early as the sixteenth century, when Glasgow was already known for strong, aged ales that lacked hops due to the difficulties in growing this plant in the cold climate of northern Great Britain. In terms of understanding the character of Scotch Ale, writer Greg Noonan offers an obvious analogy; “It is much like the flavor of a fine Scotch whisky.” Within this assessment, there is as much room for diversity in the beer as there is for the whisky. Like Lowland Whiskies, Scotch Ales can be light and floral with notes of grass, honeysuckle, and cream. On the other end of the spectrum they can be akin to Highland Whisky styles; smoky or salty with the powerful flavor of peat dominating the taste profile.
In addition to the lack of a floral hop flavor, and similarity to the whisky of Scotland, Scotch Ale is also defined by a high alcohol content complimented by complex notes of butterscotch, and candied fruit. According to Noonan, “the alcohol counterbalances and softens the sweet maltiness”. He describes Scotch Ales as “invariably rich” and “mouth-filling” with a syrup-like character that comes from a generous use of malt, and an early end to fermentation.
The Christmas Ale from Bell’s Brewery in Colorado is a straightforward Scotch Ale, the type of beer that would be referred to as a Wee Heavy in Scotland. Not all brewers making a Scotch Ale for Christmas keep it so simple though. American Scotch Ale makers often aim for peaty notes in order to stand out against other strong brown ales, and may also use adjuncts to enhance the natural character. As part of their Twelve Beers of Christmas series, The Bruery made a Scotch-style ale with Belgian candi sugar to enhance “deep notes of toffee and dried fruit” as well as spicy coriander to compliment the naturally occurring banana like esters.
Imperial Stouts are the strongest of the black beers known as stouts or porters.
From as early as the 1780s, records show that London brewers would export a strong stout to the Russian Royal Court, earning it the moniker Imperial Stout. The high alcohol content allowed it to survive cold weather and also give drinkers a sweet, warming sensation with every sip. Even then, Imperial Stout was considered a winter beer. Beer writer Michael Jackson describes the style as generally having “the tarry sweetness of Pedro Ximinez sherry”. He continues “there is a suggestion of cocoa, or strong coffee on a winter’s night. The fruitiness is reminiscent of the burnt currants on the edge of a Christmas cake that has been removed from the oven, or the Christmas pudding traditional in Britain, heavy with dried and candied fruit.” Following such descriptions, it is easy to see the appeal of Imperial Stout as a Holiday beer.
Centuries later, Goose Island Brewery would add another chapter to the story of Imperial Stout and further strengthen the style’s status as a Winter Beer through a seasonal release that will come to define the Chicago beer company. This happened during the mid-nineties, when both bottled Imperial stout and barrel aged beer were almost non-existent on the American craft beer landscape. Goose Island brew master Greg Hall had both in mind when he envisioned what his one thousandth batch of beer would be. A chance meeting with sixth generation bourbon distiller Booker Noe in 1994 granted him access to some six year old oak barrels that previously held Jim Beam whisky. He promptly filled those barrels with what he considered to be “the most robust imperial stout imaginable”. One hundred days later, a rich woody stout redolent with notes of espresso and fudge would come out of those barrels. Bourbon County Stout was born.
By annually releasing each individually numbered black bottle on the day after Thanksgiving, Bourbon County Stout quickly became a Christmas tradition. Many buyers would also cellar their coveted bottles for a year to allow some of the aggressiveness to mature into approachability and to toast the New Year with an aged stout. Since then, breweries all across America have followed the example of Goose Island and offer vintage Imperial Stouts for the Holiday season, among them are Florida companies like J. Wakefield Brewing and Cigar City Brewing that have both become famous for this style.
Taken from the Flemish word for a fourfold increase, Quadrupels are dark, potent Belgian ales typically four times as strong as lighter regional styles like witbier or lambic. Like many other elements of Belgian beer culture, Quadrupels originated in the Trappist brewing tradition. Trappist refers to a legal designation for beer produced within the walls of a monastery as part of a tradition that can be traced to a sixth century edict known as the Rule of Saint Benedict. Although most associated with Belgium, there are Trappist Breweries in several other countries including Italy and the United States. Beer writer Tim Webb stresses that Trappist does actually refer to a style, or even whether monks actually brew the beer, it is simply about where it is made. Ultimately however, certain stylistic similarities have developed among the Trappist and non-Trappist Belgian Breweries over time.
About one hundred years ago, in response to the success of British Ales in Belgium, and the prohibition on Gin being sold in pubs, Belgian brewers began to develop stronger ales. This lead to the practice of using candi syrup to bottle ferment the already strong Dubbel beer, and the birth of the even stronger, straw-colored Trippel beer. Naturally, a Quadrupel is an even heftier evolution of Belgian beer, but Tim Webb argues that what many refer to as a Quadrupel would simply be called a Grand Cru in Belgium. One such Grand Cru is Saint Bernardus 12, a full bodied and fruity beer brewed with dark malt and generous amounts of caramel syrup. The brewery also produces limited batches of a Christmas Quadrupel that they describe as having “the tastes of winter and zesty seasonal aromas” with notes of licorice “complemented by hints of creamy caramel and fire-roasted chestnuts”.
Ommegang, a New York company born from a partnership between American importers and Belgian brewers is among the earliest craft beer companies in North America that focused exclusively on fashioning their products after both Trappist beer, and Belgian farmhouse styles. The company uses hop varieties popular with Belgian brewers like Styrian Goldings, select spices, and rock candy. Former brew master Randy Theil concedes however, that “spices should play the background role for the beer” since a Belgian beer should never be as spice forward as a Winter spiced beer. In the winter of 1997, the company released their first dark abbey ale and in the time since has released similar but even stronger products to great acclaim.
Three Philosophers is not quite a Quadrupel since it combines both a strong dark ale, and a sour cherry lambic in a beer that starts with cocoa and black cherries followed by a long finish of tart sour cherries. Ommegang does not promote their Quadrupel as a seasonal holiday beer and has actually brewed what they refer to as “a warming, wintry Belgian-style blonde ale” called Everything Nice for this purpose. Similarly, Chicago’s Dovetail Brewery, a company focused on “merging continental European styles and techniques with American creativity” makes a Holiday Bock and has a tradition of starting a wild fermented beer on the night before Christmas, but they do not produce a Christmas Quadrupel.
Despite this, Quadrupel’s stance as a winter beer in the United States stems largely from how often craft breweries adopt the style as the inspiration for a special Christmas beer. When The Bruery began the ambitious project of using the cumulative carol The Twelve Days of Christmas to create a dozen beers spanning just as many years, they laid the foundation with three Quadrupels before branching into Winter Warmers and Scotch Ales. For the first year, they brewed a traditional Belgian Grand Cru with dark Candi sugar, Munich and Vienna malts. A second edition was brewed with cacao nibs and toasted pecans, while the third installment was aged in French Oak casks. The company also closed off the collection with a Quadrupel that was a Bourbon-barrel aged blend with “boisterous notes of toffee, dark fruit, caramel and oak character”.
What is a Winter Beer? The history of this broad designation suggests certain similarities; Winter Beers are strong beers that are often aged, with a deep color and complex notes. Even now however, this is changing. Christmas IPAs allow citric hop notes to compliment holiday spices, while lighter ales and lagers let bright spices shine without the distraction of the darker notes of a strong ale. Even now, the wide world of Winter Beer is getting even wider.