Powder Keg: Seasonal winter beers lift spirits and warm cockles
Ryan Summerlin February 9, 2013
Much as fall gives way to winter, Halloween pumpkins get replaced with turkeys and baseball fans turn their attention to football, beer, too, has its styles that come and go with the seasons. While nowadays we can get pretty much any variety of beer at any time, in the past brewers were more bound to cycles of growing, brewing, harvesting and weather. From this sprang many styles of winter beer, each with its own flavor, composition and history.
History tells us that the first winter beers can be traced back to pagan traditions. The winter solstice was a time of festival and celebration, when cattle were slaughtered (so as not to require feeding during the lean winter months) and when beer and wine, prepared earlier, were finally ready to be tasted and enjoyed.
While the pagan traditions became a thing of the past, the brewing tradition continued, and later it was the monks at the abbeys who brewed and imbibed of the winter beer varieties. Many monks took it upon themselves to brew special beers to celebrate the birth of Christ. These are often called noel beers, or Christmas beers.
Many of these winter beers also served another purpose – that of nourishing the drinkers. Back during medieval times, indoor heating was a smoky fire at best and food was often scarce during the winter months. Beers brewed for this time were thick and bready, with plenty of nutrition. Monks, particularly, made use of this during times of fasting when eating (but not drinking) was forbidden for certain periods of time.
Though now we have plenty of ways to stay warm during the winter, it’s still fun to partake in those special winter drinks. While some of the winter beers do have higher ABV values, that is not a necessary component and there are plenty that have similar ABV counts as “lighter” beers while retaining that special dark winter feel.
Common flavors found in winter beers include chocolate, caramel, malt, coffee and cinnamon. Not only are these common flavors of the season (just take a look at a Starbucks winter menu, for instance) but they are richer, darker flavors, in contrast to lighter, crisper flavors that you might crave during the summer.
Many of these flavors can be found in winter warmers. These are usually old or strong ales, which in England refers to dark, malty brews with mid to high alcohol content. Craft breweries in Europe and the U.S. now brew special winter warmers specifically for the winter season, which are usually only available for a limited time.
Rather than the lighter refreshing beers we drink in summer, winter beers are meant to be sipped and savored. Take your time with them, not only because they may be higher ABV value, but in order to taste the unique spices and flavors they have to offer. Consider pairing them with a bitter chocolate, or letting the spices complement a slice of pie.