When the weather turns cold, it’s time to seek out the king of all seasonal beers — winter ales. Brewed stronger, richer and more full-bodied, these beers taste great alongside a roaring fire or when hoisting the holiday cheer with friends.
Evocative of the season, winter ales have a tradition in the US, the UK, Belgium and elsewhere. English winter beers are normally called winter warmers, and tend to be dark, full in body, sweet and stronger than average (5.5% ABV and up). They are rarely spiced. American winter beers are usually called Christmas or holiday beers, and are almost always spiced. Belgian winter beers are often slightly stronger (by 1–2% ABV) versions of flagship beers. If they are spiced, the spicing is usually more subtle than American versions.
It’s difficult to describe winter seasonal beers in traditional style terms, since it’s always possible to find exceptions to any description. Perhaps it’s best to just say they are seasonal offerings that have something “special” about them — stronger, darker, spiced, hoppier — basically whatever the brewer wants to do as a gift for customers and that is somehow suitable for the winter season.
I find most English winter warmers to be very malty with a full body and sweet finish. Flavors typical of English Christmas puddings are common — figs, molasses, toffee, caramel, raisins, prunes, dried fruit and so on. In general, they are not roasty but feature dark caramel and dark fruit flavors. As the name implies, a winter warmer should have some alcohol warmth. Beers of this profile are sippers — it’s hard to drink them quickly. Some of my favorite examples are Young’s Winter Warmer, Harvey’s Christmas Ale, Hook Norton Twelve Days and Fuller’s Old Winter Ale.