While the term winter warmers elicits immediate recognition among many homebrewers and beer enthusiasts, it’s not really a style descriptor. There are no set, published guidelines describing exactly what a winter warmer is. But quickly peruse the beer displays from most well-stocked stores and you’ll find many commercial examples of seasonal beers with this term either in the name or elsewhere on the label.
Most beers that can accurately be called winter warmers share one or more characteristics, but the lack of rigid style guidelines allows creativity and variety. Most winter warmers have a high alcohol content. Alcohol levels of 6 percent alcohol by volume or more are the norm, with some winter warmers higher than 9 percent. There are some historic reasons for this. Alcohol is perceived on the palate as a hot or warming sensation, one that can extend into the back of the throat. Very strong distilled spirits can extend this sensation even farther, down the esophagus and into the stomach, to result in the perception of an “inner fire.” Man historically has perceived the consumption of alcohol, especially in higher levels, as a warming activity. Consider, for example, the stereotypical legend of the alpine St. Bernard dog, equipped only with a small cask of brandy strapped about his neck, rescuing the half-frozen skier.
While our bodies might perceive the consumption of alcohol in this manner, in truth alcohol affects the body’s circulatory system and works against the body’s inner ability to regulate its temperature. Consumption of alcohol as a medical therapeutic against hazardously cold environmental situations, regardless of this perceived “inner warming,” can be dangerous.
Historically, any beer to be consumed during the depths of winter had to be prepared during the fall months. So during a time of plenty, namely the fall harvest season, a brewer might take advantage of a bountiful harvest by increasing the malt bill for the beer he makes. This results in a much higher alcohol level in the finished product.
Many cultures have some sort of holiday or festival associated with the winter months. Beer has long been associated with ceremony, so it was common to have special beers brewed specifically to celebrate a particular holiday or event. They usually were brewed with higher alcohol than their everyday cousins to help fuel the festivities and, perhaps, provide a brace against the cold.
Many winter warmers also are infused with herbs or spices. This practice might have evolved for many reasons. The use of herbs and spices in brewing was common prior to the 1500s, when hops became widely accepted as a flavoring agent. Foods to be stored for the lean winter months often were heavily spiced or seasoned as a preservative measure. Spices were commonly added to beer at the time, and the beverage was then referred to as gruit.
For holidays many ceremonial punches and other drinks collectively referred to as wassail were prepared with a heavy infusion of distilled alcohols and spices. Wassail was festive in nature, and the term has been traced to a common holiday toast meaning “to your health.” In addition many references in holiday songs and carols still popular today refer to the wassail.
Winter was also a time of survival. During the harsh weather people were forced to remain indoors through a time of lean provisions. Living conditions often were crowded and rudimentary. This resulted in an environment where communicable diseases could thrive. Age was sometimes expressed in terms of the number of winters a person had survived. For example an individual might have been referred to as a “hardy soul of 38 winters.”
Since herbs and spices were also forms of medication of the time, their use in a drink was thought of as a healthy restorative. Also, it is only natural to assume that brewers who were already accustomed to using spices and herbs in the preservation of their beer would choose to prepare a special holiday version or wassail for the winter celebrations.
The factors that contributed to an overall increase in the strengths of the beers, namely a bountiful fall harvest, might also have had a role in additional ingredients, such as fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and flowers, being added to the beer in large enough quantities to have a substantial effect on the final product.
On September 30, the Brew Club held its Oktoberfest party and Potentate’s Reception for the Illustrious Bob Brown. The party was well attended by many Nobles, family and friends. Beer options included several home brewed version by the Brew Club which were our award winning Marzen, a Festbier, and a Strawberry Belgian Tripel. We also brewed an alcoholic root beer that was served in root beer floats as a dessert option. The Double Eagle Oktoberfest Band again provided the entertainment playing many traditional German songs and some more modern ones as well. The band’s Stump Fiddle competition was one of the highlights of the evening. In a change this year, the food was provided by Chef Jason and everything was fantastic, especially the pretzel bar. The night ended with the traditional Stein Holding competition and the Stein Carry as well. This is an event that keeps growing. You don’t want to miss it next year.
The Brew Club will be busy with many things coming up. We will be brewing beer for our Ceremonial in January and the Aleppo Smoker in February. March will be the St. Patrick’s Day party and on April 8, we will be having the Aleppo Brew Club 0.5K Road Race and Pig Roast. Check back for more details to come.
President, Aleppo Brew Club