Oh the weather outside is frightful but beer is, so delightful and since you’ve no place to go, let it pour, let it pour, let it pour. Lower temperatures, snow on the ground and the Holiday Season can offer more than horrible traffic, ice on the stairs and bills trying to find that perfect gift for someone special. It can also offer the Winter Warmer beers that offer a very strong malty character and a stronger than normal alcohol content. These beers originate from the style known as Old Ale from England and have a history of being aged in wooden barrels to apply a secondary fermentation as well as a woody flavor varying with what type of wood the barrels were made from.
In today’s craft beer world, barrel aging is used to impart different flavors and colors from the previously used barrels. Oak is preferred and barrels can range from bourbon to wine in the initial usage.
Winter Warmers without the barrel aging can be a great highlight to a cold night. Throw in the roaring fireplace and festive lights twinkling and you can almost call Norman Rockwell for a print. These beers offer malty sweetness, very little hop character and a plethora of varying spices for accentuating the colder weather. Clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger are just a few of the combinations that get blended into the brewing process for the beer. On top of these spices it is not uncommon for a slight anise flavor to spring forth for more enjoyment. While these are indeed beers, it would be suggested to try and let them warm slightly for more flavors to punch through.
A Winter Warmer served cold may not be as enjoyable as one sampled at room temperature. The suggested glass to try these beers would be a Belgian tulip as it is very much like a brandy snifter and not only traps a great scent but allows slight warming through the hand.
Two of these Winter Warmer beers that stand out locally are the Bourbon Barrel Aged Winter Warmer (BBAWW) from Rahr and Sons and the Wintervention from Peticolas. Both of these are definitely strong beers; BBAW a strong 8.5% while Wintervention clocks in at a hefty 10.0%. regardless of the alcohol amount though, these beers do not give any indication of their strength as the flavors are quite astounding. Strong sweet malt, spices and pleasant toffee-like overtone with hints of vanilla will make you want to sample plenty of these beers. The warming sensation from these will also give you a sense of being bundled up from childhood.
There are plenty of Winter beers in the craft world and all differ in their flavors and scents. Almost all will be darker beers with the majority being a strong porter or stout. Try them with different temperatures for the optimal experience and be prepared for a change in flavor as they warm up a bit. If you like to cellar your beers, a good Winter beer aged a year or two can be a world of difference in flavors as some mellow and others fortify.
Since it is the Holiday season, be sure to crack open a bottle or growler for your guests to give them some great craft experience. Sláinte.