For every month, there’s a beer: maibocks in May, märzen in September and winter warmers in December.
Also known as English-style old ales or strong ales, winter warmers are increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Popular in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, and rebranded as winter warmers in 1971, these beers were typically stronger (6-9 percent alcohol by volume), malt-centric and often came spiced. The “old” indicated that the beer was aged for some time, and often served stale or flat.
Old, stale, flat? Not exactly the kinds of marketing adjectives a 21st-century beer drinker seeks, which might explain why the style isn’t flourishing these days. The other culprit: big, beastly imperial stouts with alcohol levels soaring well into the double digits, making a strong ale with 8 percent ABV look positively passé.
But there is an undeniable charm to a winter warmer. Like a spiced ham or Santa-shaped sugar cookie, these beers signal a specific time of year and a particular frame of mind. There is an undeniable sense of reflection and contemplation that accompanies the holiday season, the perfect mindset for a delicious winter warmer. Not to mention, these beers pair spectacularly well with food, particularly roast beef, mashed potatoes made with garlic and heavy cream, and sticky toffee pudding.
Malt is the name of the game when it comes to winter warmers. Hops can sometimes be present, but mostly for the sake of bitterness — which should be soft and delicate. Instead, sweet, caramel malt with plenty of roast aromas and a dollop of dried fruit are what you hope to find in these mahogany brews.
Hands down the best one around is Odell Brewing Co.’s winter staple, Isolation Ale. Beautifully balanced malts bring out caramel, biscuit and almond cookie flavors with a clean and crisp bitterness that keeps the sweetness from building. Each sip finishes assertively, which draws you down the glass with enthusiasm. Clocking in at 6.1 percent ABV, Isolation Ale perfectly warms the body, lubricates the mind and turns softly falling snowflakes into a thing of beauty — and not something just waiting to be shoveled.
Equally impressive is Gravity Brewing’s Olde Gravitatem. A bit heavier, 8.1 percent ABV, Olde Gravitatem favors roasted malt and dried fruit — like cherry and blueberry fruit leather — with a touch of tannin on the tongue and a hint of candy sweetness.
Need a little more hop assertion in your ale? Give Great Divide Brewing Co.’s Hibernation Ale a try. True to style, Hibernation Ale embraces the sweeter sides of malt: caramel, cola and brown sugar are predominant, but with some healthy dry-hopping, Hibernation’s 8.7 percent ABV is well hidden and quite palatable.
Both Isolation Ale and Hibernation Ale are available at your quality liquor stores. Olde Gravitatem might be too, but a trip to Gravity Brewing’s headquarters in Louisville will guarantee you a sip. Just act fast; springtime and doppelbocks will be here before you know it.