I like to tell my out-of-town guests that here in Northeast Florida, we have two seasons: summer, and two weeks of winter. Most people laugh and think I’m kidding. They truly do not believe we have anything resembling cold weather. But because we do have winter weather, we can have a legitimate discussion of winter warmer beers.
The history of the warmers leads to two traditional brews: wassail and strong English ales. While wassail is aimed more toward holiday imbibing with its aromatic spices, winter warmers are geared to warm drinkers from the inside out, by pushing the alcohol content to between 5.5 and 8 percent ABV. Today, it’s common for brewers to apply the name Winter Warmer to any dark, malt-forward strong brew that may or may not contain spices or flavorings.
Something to keep in mind when drinking this style of beer is that colder is definitely not better. The adage holds true for many styles of beers, but Winter Warmers tend to release their fullest flavors as they warm. The ideal serving temperature for these hearty brews is 45 to 55 degrees.
We’re approaching the end of the Winter Warmer season, so if you haven’t tried some of these luscious ales, you must brave the cold weather (today it’s 81 outside!) and seek them out now. Here are a few of my faves:
Blitzen Festivus Ale
North Peak Brewing Company,
Traverse City, Michigan
This beer pours a deep red color and produces an active and healthy head. It smells of dark fruits, like cherries, raisins and plums. The first sip reveals a hoppy bitterness and perhaps a touch of spiciness lent to the brew by the addition of rye in the mash.
SweetWater Brewing Company, Atlanta
SweetWater has been producing this winter favorite for several years. I usually purchase several 22-ounce bombers every year and cellar them to savor beside the next year’s iteration. Over time, this brew smooths out and becomes pure, silky decadence. It pours a dark chestnut brown with a light brown, frothy head. The aroma is heavy with spices, like cinnamon and mace, and the flavor is malty with plenty of cinnamon – kind of like an alcohol-infused cinnamon roll.
Cold Mountain Winter Ale
Highland Brewing Company,
Asheville, North Carolina
It’s one of the oldest Winter Ales on our list. Highland has been brewing this beer for 19 years, and each year there are subtle changes to the brew, making it a favorite for cellaring. After it’s poured, the ale’s aroma hints at hazelnuts, vanilla, cinnamon and piney hops. One can taste various flavors of toffee, vanilla, dark fruits and spices in the tried-and-true Winter Warmer.