As soon as Oktoberfest and pumpkin beers start to fade away, you’re likely to see the shelves fill with winter beers. What makes a beer perfect to drink throughout the colder months? What are the best ones to try and what ingredients give them that ‘wintery,’ holiday taste?
While winter beer isn’t a specific style of beer, they’re typically brewed with spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, ginger, and allspice. From ales to stouts, there’s a load of choices. Some of the best of these include Harpoon Winter Warmer, Sly Fox Christmas Ale, Great Lakes Christmas Ale, Deschutes Jubelale, and SweetWater Festive Ale.
Continue reading to find out what makes a winter beer live up to its name, and find out what a winter warmer really is. Learn more about the spices used in winter beers, the best styles for these seasonals, and the best spiced winter beers to try during the holidays.
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What are winter beers?
Are winter beers just beers that are drunk during the winter? Are they colder than other beers? What’s the difference between a winter ale and a winter warmer?
Well, it can get a little complicated. Luckily for you, you’ve come to the right place to clear up any confusion.
Winter beers are typically ales that are tweaked a little bit from their traditional recipes. They usually include spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice to pair with other seasonal food recipes. They’re often more malt-forward than they are hoppy, and the sweetness balances the holiday spices.
These beers are elaborate and give you a pleasant warm feeling that pairs well with a holiday cookie or other roasted winter dish. Enjoy them by the fireplace.
What is a winter warmer beer?
Perhaps more complicated than defining a seasonal winter beer is defining a winter warmer. Are they the same thing? What makes a winter warmer different from another winter beer?
A winter warmer is either a Wassail or a strong English ale, both spiced of course. Wassails are traditional, geographically-unique beers that were imbibed in Southern England for ritualistic purposes. Winter warmers are these styles of beers, changed to include traditional wintery spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves.
Winter warmers aren’t too different from a winter beer and are even considered the same by many. However, there are slight differences if you want to get technical.
Which spices are normally used in spiced winter beers?
The holidays are a great time to experiment with spices, especially in beer.
The spices that are normally used in the kitchen around the holidays are – no surprise here – the ones you’ll find in winter beers:
- Nutmeg – The spice of all winter spices. This pungent and semi-sweet spice is commonly used in traditional holiday meals, such as baked goods, meats, potatoes, and even beverages, like eggnog. It’s no wonder it found such a prolific space in winter beers
- Cinnamon – This year-round spice has also secured a significant market share in the world of winter spices. Its spicy, warm and uniquely sweet characteristics make it the perfect addition to many holiday meals and beers
- Clove – Occasionally termed the “hop” of holiday spices. Clove pairs well with other spices like nutmeg and cinnamon to counterbalance the sweetness with a hint of bitterness. Still warm and sweet, clove is another foundation spice for winter food and beer alike
- Ginger – Imparting similar characteristics as clove, ginger is pungent and semi sweet with a little bit of a peppery taste. It’s used year-round in a myriad of dishes and has become yet another useful ingredient in winter beers
- Allspice – Another winter beer staple. Allspice’s name is derived from its characteristic of tasting like a blend of the other traditional, aforementioned holiday spices. Known as Jamaica pepper, it can be used with – or as a substitute for – nutmeg, cinnamon, or clove.
Which beer styles pair best with winter spices?
Winter spices can make some beers taste amazing and even emphasize existing flavors. It’s important to know which beer styles pair best with these spices because a failed pairing can ruin a brew.
The beer styles that go best with a bit of nutmeg and other winter spices include some darker colored (and some lighter) beers, like:
- American pale ales – A medium bodied, semi-hoppy, sometimes-sweet ale with a prominent hop flavor that isn’t overwhelming. These beers balance maltiness and hoppiness greatly, with an approachable ABV range of 4.3-5.4%.
- Red ales – Malty, red-colored ales on the shy side of bitterness with an ABV ranging from 4-5%. Adding winter spices during the colder months is a hit in contemporary brewing.
- American brown ales – Notes of caramel and chocolate with a modest ABV of 4.1-6.5%. These sweeter beers pair great with spicy and bitter flavors of winter spices.
- White IPAs – A fusion of two styles: witbiers and American IPAs, these beers have become increasingly popular in recent years as the base style for winter beers. Their ABVs range from 5-8%, retaining spicy citrus notes at their core.
- (English) Strong ales – A dark, English ale with an ABV ranging from 7-11%, they’re classics that are often altered during the holiday season to become winter warmers.
- Stouts – Very dark, distinct color. A thick and creamy taste with mid-high IBU and an ABV range of 5.7-8.9%. Year-round beer but mainly enjoyed during later months.
The best spiced winter beers to try during the 2023 holidays
So, where’s a good place to start? What are the best spiced winter beers?
If you can get your hands on any of these winter beers, definitely pick them up and give them a try!
- Anderson Valley Winter Solstice Ale
- Harpoon Brewery Winter Warmer
- Stone Brewing Xocoveza Tres Leches
- 21st Amendment Brewing Fireside Chat
- Sly Fox Christmas Ale
- Great Lakes Christmas Ale
- Southern Tier 2XMAS Ale
- Deschutes Jubelale
- Great Divide Chai Yeti
- SweetWater Festive Ale
1. Anderson Valley Winter Solstice Ale
- Style: Winter Warmer
- Brand: Anderson Valley Brewing Company
- From: Boonville, California
- ABV: 6.9%
- Taste: Made with pale two-row malts and Northern Brewer hops. A deep red hue with notes of spice, caramel and toffee. A rich mouthfeel and a creamy finish.
2. Harpoon Brewery Winter Warmer
- Style: Winter Warmer
- Brand: Harpoon Brewery
- From: Boston, Massachusetts; Windsor, Vermont
- ABV: 6%
- Taste: Nutty, spicy and subtly carmelly. A copper hue made with Apollo and Northern Brewer hops and Pale & Caramel malt. Semi-sweet with a spicy finish.
3. Stone Brewing Xocoveza
- Style: Mocha Stout
- Brand: Stone Brewing
- From: Escondido, California
- ABV: 8.1%
- Taste: Inspired by Mexican hot chocolate, this stout features English Challenger and East Kent Golding hops. It tastes like cocoa and cinnamon, with coffee, nutmeg, and vanilla mixed in. A full body with a smooth, creamy finish.
4. 21st Amendment Brewing Fireside Chat
- Style: Spiced Ale
- Brand: 21st Amendment Brewery
- From: San Francisco, California
- ABV: 7.9%
- Taste: Pale and Munich malts with Columbus and US Golding hops. A derivative of an English strong ale with “hand-selected” spices. A subtle cocoa taste with a smooth and warm, spicy finish.
5. Sly Fox Christmas Ale
- Style: Spiced Red Ale
- Brand: Sly Fox Brewing Company
- From: Pottstown, Pennsylvania
- ABV: 6.3%
- Taste: Traditional mulling spices. Subtly sweet with a prominent spicy flavor. Full-bodied with a crisp, spicy finish.
- Where you can find it: Beer distributors in Eastern Pennsylvania and at Sly Fox tap rooms from November-December. Available for dropshipping in various Northeastern states.
6. Great Lakes Christmas Ale
- Style: Winter spiced ale
- Brand: Great Lakes Brewing Company
- From: Cleveland, Ohio
- ABV: 7.5%
- Taste: Two-row malt and Mt. Hood hop base. Notes of cinnamon and ginger, made with sweet honey. A classic spiced bite and a smooth and rich mouthfeel with an easy finish.
- Where you can find it: On tap and in beer distributors in Ohio/Pennsylvania area bars and restaurants.
7. Southern Tier 2XMAS ale
- Style: Spiced Double Winter Ale
- Brand: Southern Tier Brewing Co.
- From: Lakewood, New York
- ABV: 8%
- Taste: Sweet malt and slight hop bitterness. Dark ruby body with prominent spice flavors from cinnamon, cloves and ginger. Includes figs and orange peels. Strong, spicy bite all the way through.
8. Deschutes Jubelale
- Style: Spiced winter ale
- Brand: Deschutes Brewery
From: Bend, Oregon
- ABV: 6.7%
- Taste: Pale and crystal malt with Bravo and Cascade hop base. Robust and spicy with notes of toffee and dusted cocoa, and a crisp finish.
- Where you can find it: Anywhere in Oregon, available for shipping in Oregon and DC from Deschutesbrewery.com; Roanoke tasting room and Portland & Bend pubs.
9. Great Divide Chai Yeti
- Style: Imperial Stout
- Brand: Great Divide Brewing Company
- From: Denver, Colorado
- ABV: 9.5%
- Taste: Chai spices; cinnamon, green cardamom, ginger, nutmeg and vanilla. Rich, roasted malt base with a rich mouthfeel. A warm finish and spicy bite.
- Where you can find it: Great Divide Denver, Co, taprooms; Great American Beer Festival; local beer distributors and liquor stores in 22oz. bottles and in Yeti variety packs.
10. SweetWater Festive Ale
- Style: Spiced Winter Ale
- Brand: SweetWater Brewing Company
- From: Atlanta, Georgia
- ABV: 8.1%
- Taste: Two-row and Munich malts, Centennial and Golding hops with added cinnamon and nutmeg. Hints of toffee and chocolate, finished with notes of walnut and subtly sweet vanilla.
- Where you can find it: Beer distributors and liquor stores across the country; on draft at select bars and restaurants.
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