The chill of winter calls for a beer with extra flavor and strength, and this take on a classic strong ale does just that—it soothes the soul and warms the spirit. Flavors of caramel and chocolate are derived from an abundance of carefully roasted malts. Chinook and Mt. Hood hops contribute a spiciness, lending balance and a clean finish. Christmas Ale is a cozy holiday companion worthy of sharing.
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Any beer defined as a winter warmer is meant for chilly evenings spent with family and friends; imagine, there’s a fire lit and you’re in the middle of a fierce card game while sipping this spicy, snuggly brew. The warming quality in these beers is attributed to their high alcohol content — the alcohol helps redistribute your body heat in a way that actually helps you warm up (even though your body temperature isn’t technically changing). These cozy brews cover a pretty wide range of beers in several different seasonal styles, including winter ales, festive ales, Christmas ales and wassail-style ales.
During warmer months, brewers try to feature hops and citrus in their summer beers, which help create more refreshing, brighter styles befitting the season; compare this to winter warmers which instead feature dark, roasted malts and very little hop flavor, creating a rich, heavy beer designed for easy sipping. English and American winter warmers tend to differ in their level of spice, with the latter featuring cinnamon, mace, ginger, nutmeg and other popular pumpkin-spiced latte ingredients. The authentic English winter warmers are often smoked instead, meaning the malts were dried over an open fire, leading to a more complex, charred flavor.
Winter warmers are a catch-all category for a number of different cold-weather brew styles, but you can expect most to fall between 6-10% alcohol content. The elevated ABVs are responsible for the style’s “warming” qualities; alcohol is a type of vasodilator, meaning the capillaries at your skin’s surface open (or dilate) and brings more blood to your body’s exterior — hence the warming sensation; it’s the same reaction you feel when eating especially spicy foods like hot peppers. The effect is found in other high ABV beers, but the winter warmer’s holiday spices and heavy quality really encourage you to snuggle up on a long winter’s night.
Beers that fall into the winter warmer category are typically available on a limited basis during the fall and winter months; with a heavy dose of holiday spice, winter warmers are better designed for the holiday season rather than a particular dish. Consider other cold-weather favorites to pair alongside one of these hardy, indulgent brews: roasted nuts, root vegetables and cheeses. The caramel and gingerbread-like flavors in a winter warmer can mellow a bright, salty parmesan cheese or a deep, earthy nut; opt for elaborate cheese boards packed with extra bites of cured meat and decadent appetizers reserved for holiday gatherings.
The winter warmer’s distinctive high alcohol content and complex, roasted malt flavor are designed for sipping slowly while reconnecting with family members and friends over the holidays; it’s not a style of beer you’d want to gulp down. Winter warmers are made in the tradition of old-school European ales, but the American varieties (like the well-known Old Fezziwig ale from Samuel Adams) add an extra dose of holiday spice, whether ginger, cinnamon or nutmeg. To best appreciate these aromatics, serve your winter warmer in a snifter glass; the wide base allows for excellent swirling while the narrow rim accentuates the holiday spice and sip-ability.
Winter warmers tend to have higher calorie counts and carbohydrates thanks to their rich and sweet flavors and high ABVs; the actual nutritional content depends on the amount of alcohol in the brew, but you can expect a 12-ounce serving of a winter warmer to contain around 250 calories. A bottle of Christmas Ale from Great Lakes Brewing Company (often considered one of the best available Christmas beers) has an ABV of 7.5%, 230 calories and about 17 grams of carbohydrates. Winter warmers are undoubtedly indulgent, so there’s a reason that these brews pair best with bulky Christmas sweaters.