Winter Warmer: Spice It Up, Spice It Down

Style Profile by | Dec 2007 | Issue #12

Who in the name of Reinheitsgebot thought it was a good idea to dump spices—nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla—into beer? Every winter it’s the same thing: Brewers around the world (despite seasonal admonitions to bring good will toward all men) nevertheless tear open the pantry cabinet and pour bucketfuls of powders, flowers, fruits and secret potions into perfectly good vats of beer.

These are supposed to be alcoholic beverages for adults, not gingerbread cookies for runny-nosed urchins. Bah humbug! Ah… don’t listen to me. That’s just my inner Scrooge.

In fact, spiced holiday brews—call them Winter Warmers or Christmas beers, depending on your attitude toward secularism—have a long, flavorful history that undoubtedly predates the Bavarian purity law. Rather than a perversion, Spiced Ale is the original beer.

And by original, I mean not quite dawn of man, but back to a time when the changing of seasons was a cause for pagan celebration. In the case of winter, it was the time of Saturnalia in Rome, Yule in Scandinavia—huge, weeklong feasts to mark the death and rebirth of the sun and the earth. As you might imagine, there was a bit of drinking that went on.

Those early beers were bittered not necessarily with hops, but with a combination of herbs and spices—heather, juniper, yarrow, coriander, aniseed. The spices balanced the sweet malt, preserved the beer and, if you listen to Wiccans, held mystical healing powers. Since everybody was in a celebratory mood, brewers would’ve made something special, perhaps spicier or more potent.

The rest of the story you know: Reinheitsgebot declared spices verboten in favor of hops, Prohibition killed the American brewing tradition and big brewers dumbed down everything they touched. All hope was lost till Fritz Maytag descended from the heavens, saved San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing and, in 1975, re-introduced Christmas beer to the faithful.

It wasn’t till about 10 years later that Anchor actually started adding spices to Our Special Ale, but by then it was anything goes. Pagans at heart, craft brewers across the land began turning out their own special ales to mark the winter solstice.

Sweetwater Festive Ale from Georgia has the flavor of cinnamon and mace. Sly Fox Christmas Ale from Pennsylvania is mulled with ginger and nutmeg. Hitachino Nest Celebration from Japan is flavored with orange peel and vanilla beans.

It can be tough, though, to make your way through an entire case of those flavors; some are as intense as a cup of Red Zinger tea. Unopened bottles might sit in the back of the fridge along with your Aunt Irma’s fruitcake.

Thus, some winter warmers—Samuel Smith’s and Young’s, as prime examples—have no spices at all. Their malty character evokes the flavor of a warm cup of wassail. Others, like Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig, are so mild, the spices seem intended to enhance the finish of the hops rather than tickle your tongue.

In any case, there’s usually an underlying sweet malty base to winter warmers—something like an English Old Ale. The alcohol takes the chill off, the hops are just dry enough to make you want another… and another. Just like a fresh-baked gingerbread cookie.

Color: Amber to dark ruby
Aroma: Sweet, spicy
Flavor: Malty, dried fruit, nutty, spiced
ABV: 6–9 percent
Examples: Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome, Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig, Pyramid Snow Cap, Full Sail Wassail, Anderson Valley Winter Solstice, Deschutes Jubelale, Young’s Winter Warmer, Fuller’s Old Winter Ale