Let’s begin with a small amount of beer terminology. When I say that beers are getting bigger this time of year, I am not talking about their actual size; I’m talking about flavor and alcohol content. The end of the year is, for many, a time for contemplation, relaxation, and some well-earned indulgence. If you are one of those people, then do yourself a favor and make winter beers your companion for the weeks and months ahead.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Time for some more beer terminology: ABV, or alcohol by volume. There should be no confusion as to why winter brings out the big ABVs. It’s cold outside, and a hefty ABV helps warm you from the inside out. It’s as simple as that. Plus, warm weather needs beer that is somewhat thirst quenching. More quaffable ABVs are what’s needed in those months. No one in their right mind would swig down 10 percent ABV beers trying to quench their thirst. That’s a recipe for disaster. But in the winter, we can sip and savor, so stronger beers just make more sense.
Spicing Things Up
One of the greatest things about beer is the seemingly limitless possibilities for experimentation. The big, sturdy beers of winter are the perfect template for creativity. Lighter bodied beers are beautiful in their simplicity: water, malted barley, hops, and yeast. The vastness of what can be done with those four ingredients is staggering. But these winter beers sometimes go way beyond the core ingredients, with brewers adding herbs and spices to complement their hearty brews. These additions could be too glaring or dominant in something lighter, but dark and complex beers lend themselves well to subtle nuances, adding flavor, depth, and mystery.
Similar to the pumpkin beers of fall, spiced winter ales tend to go straight for the cookie spices. Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and clove are common. Other things we don’t see in the fall can also make an appearance: molasses, vanilla, dried orange peel, ginger, or honey. Few of these beers use any of these additions alone. More commonly, it is a mixture of three, four, or more that contributes to the recipe.
What’s more wintery than evergreen trees? The correct answer is, “nothing.” Although not exactly commonplace, in the winter we do see beers tinged with the flavor of spruce. Sound contrived? Think again. Ancient Scandinavians used spruce boughs as a primitive filter, layering them atop one another to help separate liquids from solids when brewing. The resulting beer had naturally picked up spruce flavor along the way. Plus, before the hop plant was widely utilized to bitter beer, brewers used combinations of herbs, spices, and botanicals to counteract the sweetness from the malt. Spruce was prevalent in some of those mixtures, depending on what part of the world we are talking about.
Finally, spruce is very high in Vitamin C. Sailors and American colonists were known to make spruce beer for health reasons, mainly to prevent scurvy. So just like modern pumpkin beers, spruce beers have their origins in pure practicality.
One key thing to remember when thinking about beer traditions is the seasonality of ingredients. Many fall or “harvest” beers, for example, are bursting with hop flavor. They showcase the bounty of the season’s hop harvest in every glass.
Historically, lighter beers were prevalent in the spring and summer months, partly because barley supplies from the fall harvest were running low. You simply couldn’t make stronger beers without using up all of the barley. But in the winter, barley hoppers were full. Fresh hops, however, were already in short supply. So it should come as no surprise that winter beers are therefore malt-forward, and light on the hops. As we determined earlier, the spices and such would have been essential to balance out the flavors in these beers.
You can see, again, how practicality is at the root of certain seasonal traditions. Those traditions continue today, whether we understand their origins or not.
Go Ahead, You’re Worth It
Strong beers are understandably more expensive. More ingredients are required to make them stronger, as well as the additions of costly spices and the like where applicable. So it comes as no surprise that these beers would come out at the end of the year. People are splurging on gifts and lavish holiday meals, so why not pick up a few exotic and expensive beers at the same time?
The holiday season is also one full of good cheer and celebrations. These call for something truly remarkable in all facets, beer included. So whether it is a decadent dinner, a cause to raise a toast, or a gift for that special someone (maybe even yourself!), the magnificent beers of winter fit the bill.
We have established that winter beers — strong, possibly spiced or tweaked in some way, and almost exclusively dark — just make sense on so many practical levels. There is, however, one more reason to seek out winter and/or holiday beers that is just plain fun: Artwork. The artwork on many of these beers is simply exquisite. Many of them are intricate works of art, capturing the season in one concise snapshot. Some labels are just as warming as the contents of their bottles. Others are downright funny. Snowmen, reindeer, Santa, cookies, Christmas trees, and more can all be found on the labels of some very serious and complex beers. Just like a present under the tree, the wrapping can be almost as enjoyable as the contents.
On the simplest level, think of winter beers as gifts from the brewers to you. The holiday season is special for them too, and they express that with these unique and often decadent beers. The offerings at the end of the year are always special, so do yourself a favor and share some with friends and family this holiday season. Winter beer will definitely administer a good dose of holiday cheer, and they might just help diffuse those awkward family moments.
Winter beers will warm you, relax you, and will most certainly be a conversation starter. Their strength and complexity are sure to provide a pleasant reverie as you contemplate the end to another year, and the beginning of a new one. Cheers!