A lot has been made about beer and food pairings over the past few years, however traditionally, beer is not paired with meals, but with weather: different beers for different seasons. In fact, one advantage beer has always had over wine is that because beers can be made all year long, brews can more easily change with the seasons: from lighter, fruitier and floral beers to keep summer breezy to heavier, darker brews to hold drinkers down during the cold. Needless to say, Winter Warmers fit into that latter category.
Winter Warmer may be a bit open-ended when it comes to the specific guidelines used to brew it, but as for the beer style’s purpose, the name lays things out explicitly. From vodka in Russia to whiskey in Scotland, generations of people living in cold climates have used strong alcoholic drinks to warm the belly and alleviate the mental strain of freezing their asses off. Winter Warmers tend to stem from English Strong Ales which the Brewers Association considers to have ABVs of between 5.5 and 8.9 percent: Clearly it’s no Scotch whiskey, but it’s hopefully enough to do the trick in the slightly more temperate land of England.
Of course, alcohol alone doth not a beer make, so Winter Warmers will also have flavors that could best be described as fitting the season. These are primarily built from the malt bill, often including notes of dried fruit like raisin or prune (think fruitcake), caramel and molasses (think gingerbread) and other sweet, bready, sometimes toasted flavors. In modern incarnations, brewers may also add winter spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, etc. – to really hammer home that winter feel, as well as to cut some of that malt sweetness and maybe temper some of the booziness.
Another place this style separates itself is in color: Warmers are more brown that black, meaning what you won’t typically find are the strong chocolate and coffee notes you would find in another great winter beer, Stout.
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Since Winter Warmer is a bit of a nebulous style—there’s no Winter Warmer category at the Great American Beer Festival, for instance—you won’t see a ton of beers carrying that specific label, but plenty of brews still fit the bill. (Worth noting, often times the designation Christmas Ale would probably pass for Winter Warmer as well.) Oregon’s Deschutes makes a damn fine “winter festive ale” called Jubelale that ticks all the Winter Warmer boxes. Also, California’s 21st Amendment packs a 7.9 percent punch into their canned Fireside Chat which is a solid cold weather sipper. But if you must drink something called Winter Warmer, keep your eye out for the massive Warmer Winter Winter Warmer from Florida’s Cigar City – though be warned: at 12 percent, this may be more warming than you bargained for.