You can smell it in the air. Your nostrils tingle, as if stimulated by a feather made of ice crystals. Your eyes move skyward, focusing on the soft blanket of clouds overhead. If you could plunge into them, they might be soft and comforting, like a white fox fur. You would roll on them for hours, wrapped in the silky feel that dresses your skin.
A few flakes begin to drift in the air, a gentle nudge against the gray matter between your ears. You are focused in a trance, joining in the dance of tranquility, one that can only delight in the moment. Thoughts of sliding cars, shovels filled with snow, and chilling winds take a temporary backseat. Like a surly teenager, you can only see the pleasures of the present. You vow to make it last.
Your mind enters darkened hallways…catacombs…winding concrete stairways that melt into darkness…an archway surrounding heavy oak doors that open into your beer cellar. In reality, it may not be as elaborate as your imagination, but the delights it holds are enough to compensate for the lack of “movie script” settings. You search out your Winter Warmers, organized like a veritable gold-mine to one who “knows” beer. Those robust potions that diminish the unpleasantries of the ensuing storm. Collectively, the Philosopher’s Stone, a panacea that slackens the evils of the cold!
In purists’ terms, Winter Warmers are malt accented in flavor, robust in body, and medium to strong in alcoholic strength. You will often feel an alcoholic warmth illuminating your tongue, like a lover that starts by stimulating your lips but envelops your being with increasing intensity, opening up senses that had previously lay dormant. They may be bittered with hops using a heavy or light hand, or may be produced with barely perceptible hop nuances that are inspirited by spices of star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, juniper berries, or other creative blends of a bouquet garni, added in the final moments of the grand symphony.
By definition within the Beer Judge Certification Program, Winter Warmers fall into their own sub-category under the larger title of “Spice/Herb/Vegetable Beer.” From this perspective, flavors may be as varied as Christmas gifts - brown paper packages tied up with string, gift bags dressed with confetti and curled gold ribbon, or bright paper Santas embellished with sleigh bells and glittered bows. A cicerone would describe a true Winter Warmer by the distinctive characteristics of each: from the yeasty prominence of cookie dough and gingerbread, to the outdoorsy feathering of spruce trees, and onward, into fruity wassail awash with plums, honey, orange peel and spices. To the delight of the beer lover, the actual interpretation is left to the imagination of the brewmaster.
Historically, the etymology of the word “wassail” is of Anglo-Saxon origin. It traces back to 450 A.D., when Rowena, daughter of the Saxon leader Hengist raised her cup in honor of British King Vortigen and proclaimed, “Louerd King, waes hael,” (Lord King, be of health) to which he cried out, “Drink, hael!” Thereafter, on twelfth night celebrations, the wassail bowl would be decorated with greenery and each person present would toast to the health of the others. This tradition eventually developed into the practice of caroling door-to-door on Christmas Day, and welcoming neighbors would share wassail with the carolers from a large bowl or “loving cup”. Winter Warmers gained greater prominence as songs about “wassailing” celebrated the joyous practice.
In the broader sense, Winter Warmers may encompass styles of Old Ale, Barley Wine, Baltic Porter, Imperial Stout, Strong Scottish Ale, and Whiskey-Malt beer (those made with peat-dried malts that are typically used in the crafting of whiskey.) Within the traditions of beer crafting in each country, Winter Warmers are stimulating and satisfying, but vary in scope. German Beers, for example, are strongly influenced by Reinheitsgebot, and biermeisters would typically shy away from introducing spices, molasses or honey into any German-crafted beer. English and American Barley Wines may employ extensive periods of fermentation and maturation using ale yeasts, or introduce wine yeasts for greater alcoholic strength. The strength of Scottish wee heavy would be defined by the Shilling, and peat-inspired beers would be typical. Robust Porters and Russian Imperial Stouts would have flavors of intense roastiness and burnt currants with the dashing splash of alcohol, producing the widely coveted flavors traditionally preferred in the Czarist courts of St. Petersburg.
This winter, as you share your valuable Winter Warmer stash with your friends, lovers, and neighbors, replenish with gusto and a discriminating eye. The delights will be ever more pronounced in years to come, when these Specialty Beers have aged and mellowed. You can have fun doing vertical and horizontal tastings, and you will be making a strong statement about how much you value and honor their love and friendship.
So, how should you stock your beer cellar with Winter Warmers that will stand the test of time?
Begin with a Beer Fox list of Winter Warmers – 20 Must Haves for the Beer Cellar