Take Heart with Winter Warmers

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.

A Spicy History

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.

Formulating a Recipe

The first point to consider in creating a winter warmer is also one of the easiest. To make a big beer, use an ample amount of malt to get a healthy starting gravity. Depending on the alcohol level you desire, try to get an original gravity of at least 1.060 (15° Plato). If spices, herbs, fruits, or other flavoring agents will be incorporated into the recipe, consider sticking primarily with pale malts or light malt extract to prevent strong malt flavors from dominating the finished beer.

Winter warmers are good candidates for the introduction of additional fermentables in the form of adjunct sugar. Belgian candi sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey, and any of the various syrups or sugars that find their way into holiday baking can boost the gravity and the alcohol content of the finished beer while contributing aromas and characters found in traditional holiday cakes, cookies, and other desserts. Limit the use of any adjunct sugars to less than 10 percent by weight of the total fermentables to prevent excessive off-flavors and fermentation problems. In addition use a hard, rolling boil to contribute to the caramelization of malt sugars that will lend their character to the finished beer. But be careful to avoid actually scorching the wort or undissolved malt extract at the bottom of your brewpot. This can result in very un-holiday aromas and flavors similar to burnt toast or rubber.

As with any type of high-gravity, high-alcohol brew, it is imperative to use a suitable quantity of a healthy yeast. Preferably, use a starter from a liquid yeast culture. While there are no guidelines as to whether a winter warmer should be a lager or an ale, it is important to select a strain that can handle the higher level of alcohol while still providing good flavor characteristics. Also, as the gravity of a beer increases, an extended fermentation and conditioning time is required to achieve maturation. So a good winter warmer is a beer not to be hurried. Allow the complex flavors to develop, blend, and mellow over time. The use of a two-stage fermentation is often a plus.

When deciding on a hopping level, consider whether any unusual flavoring agents will be added to the beer. If this is the case, it is usually best to be conservative in the use of hops. This prevents them from overpowering the flavors of the other ingredients. With higher levels of malt and alcohol, greater levels of hop bitterness are required to balance the sweetness and prevent the beer from becoming cloying. One formula is to try for 25 to 30 IBUs of bitterness. If you use any unusual ingredients, minimize the flavor and aromatic contributions of the hops by limiting or even eliminating hop additions in the last style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> 30 minutes of the boil. But there are no set rules for winter warmers. If high bitterness and flavor levels are what you enjoy, there is no reason the beer can’t be highly hopped or even dry-hopped in the fermenter.

Adding Spices

There is no single way to add herbs, spices, or fruits to beer, but there are many variables to consider. In general when these types of ingredients are added to the boil, the heat of the boil can increase the pungency or effect of the ingredient. At the same time, boiling reduces any subtle aromatic characters by driving volatile compounds out of the beer and into the steam of the boil. Also, while boiling fruits or vegetables ensures sanitization, it also can act on pectin in fruit to create a haze in the finished beer.

Just as in cooking, the use of prepared, dried, or ground herbs and spices often results in a greater, more powerful contribution than the use of fresh herbs or spices, and boiling can intensify this even further. The use of fresh herbs or spices usually results in more delicate and rounded aromatics. The same goes for the addition of hops; introducing these ingredients into the latter stages of the boil can result in a compromise between extraction of flavors and loss of delicate aromatics.

Another way to introduce unusual ingredients is to add them to the fermenter or at bottling time, after the bulk of fermentation is complete. Not only will this help prevent aromatics from being driven off with the escaping CO2 of fermentation, it also will allow some level of control with the addition of ingredients, especially if you are using an herb, spice, or flavoring for the first time and are not entirely sure of how much to add to get the desired flavor. You can minimize the risk of creating an undrinkable batch of beer destined to be dumped on the flower garden in the spring. Simply add measured amounts of the ingredient into the beer slowly, tasting the beer after each addition. There are many flavoring extracts and essences available that can be introduced into the beer at any point in the fermentation, right up to bottling time. These flavorings allow the experimental homebrewer to try ingredients that might not be available fresh locally for geographic or seasonal reasons. As opposed to fresh fruit or spices, flavorings are controlled for consistency. This can aid in determining proper usage for a batch of beer. Also, introducing such flavorings into the bottling or kegging process can allow what normally would be one batch of beer to be split easily into two or more distinctly different beers with a common base.

Looks Count

At first glance the outer packaging might not seem to bear any relationship to what goes inside the bottle. But the major commercial brewers invest heavily in packaging because they know that the package on the outside prejudices the drinker to the flavor of the product on the inside.

Because a winter warmer is a beer for a festive time of year, consider bottling in 22-ounce, “bomber” style bottles for sharing a drink with friends. Or try eight-ounce bottles for single servings. Either way, you’ll want to linger over that extra-strong beer, preferably by the fire.

With the addition of a homemade label, winter warmers can further serve to warm the hearts of friends and relatives when they are shared or given as gifts during the holiday season.

The important thing to remember when concocting your own winter warmer recipe is that there really are no set rules. Look to the past, embody the spirit of the season, and let creativity reign to help design your own special seasonal homebrew that will elicit warm memories of winters past.

Valley Forge Winter Spruce
(5 gallons, extract)

Spruce beer was a common colonial beverage in George Washington’s time and no doubt would have been welcome during the cold winter at Valley Forge.


  • 10 lbs. dark malt extract
  • 0.5 oz. Chinook hops (8.7% alpha acid, 4.4 AAUs) for 60 min.
  • 1 oz. Centennial hops (6.9% alpha acid, 6.9 AAUs) for 30 min.
  • 1 oz. Kent Goldings hops (5.2% alpha acid, 5.2 AAUs) for 15 min.
  • Wyeast 1056 (American ale) yeast or 14 g Doric dry ale yeast
  • 1 to 2 oz. spruce essence
  • 2/3 cup corn sugar for priming

Step by Step:

Heat 5 gal. water and stir in malt extract just before boil. Total boil is 60 min. Add Chinook hops and boil 30 min. Add Centennial hops, boil 15 min. Add Kent Goldings hops, boil 15 min. more. Kill heat, cool to 70° F, and pitch yeast.

Ferment at 65° to 70° F for seven days. Rack to secondary and allow to condition for an additional seven days. At bottling time prime with corn sugar and add spruce essence to your own taste (amount varies depending on type of essence). Bottle and age for three weeks.

OG = 1.074
FG = 1.017
Bitterness = 35 IBUs

Sleepy Bear Wassail
(5 gallons, partial mash)


  • 5 lbs. two-row pale malt
  • 0.5 lb. chocolate malt
  • 0.75 lb. special roast malt
  • 5 lbs. light malt extract
  • 1 lb. of either honey or molasses, depending on taste
  • 1 oz. Wye Target hops (8.4% alpha acid, 8.4 AAUs) for 60 min.
  • 2 oz. Willamette hops (5.6% alpha acid, 11.2 AAUs) for 30 min.
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground cinnamon stick
  • 2 oz. vodka or grain alcohol
  • Wyeast 1084 (Irish ale) or White Labs WLP002 (English ale) yeast
  • 1 cup dry malt extract for priming

Step by Step:

Heat 1.5 gal. water to 163° F. Mash in grains, hold at 150° to 153° F for 45 min. Sparge with enough 168° F water to collect 2.25 gal. in brew pot.

Top up to 5.5 gal. and bring to boil, stirring in malt extract just before the boil begins. Total boil is 60 min. Add Wye Target hops and boil for 30 min. Add Willamette hops and boil for an additional 25 min. Add either molasses or honey (or 0.5 lb. of each) and boil for remaining 5 min., then cool to 70° F and pitch yeast.

Ferment for nine days at 70° F, then transfer to secondary and allow to condition for 10 days at 70° F. When racking to secondary, steep ground ginger and cinnamon in grain alcohol for 10 to 15 min., then introduce all into secondary before transferring. After conditioning, prime with dry malt extract and bottle. Age for four weeks.

OG = 1.078
FG = 1.021
Bitterness = 49 IBUs

Old Man Winter
(5 gallons, all-grain)


  • 12 lbs. British pale ale malt
  • 5 lbs. DeWolf-Cosyns pale malt
  • 0.75 lbs. DeWolf-Cosyns aromatic malt
  • 1.5 lbs. crystal malt, 60° Lovibond
  • 0.5 lbs. chocolate malt
  • 1 oz. Magnum hops (11% alpha acid, 11 AAUs) for 90 min.
  • 4 oz. Kent Goldings hops (5.2% alpha acid, 20.8 AAUs) 2 oz. (10.4 AAUs) for 60 min.; 2 oz. (10.4 AAUs) for 20 min.
  • 1 tsp., Irish moss for 10 min.
  • Wyeast 1728 (Scottish ale) or White Labs WLP028 (Edinburgh ale) yeast
  • 2/3 cup corn sugar for priming

Step by Step:

Heat 4 gal. water to 167° F, mash in grains and hold at 153° to 155° F for 60 min. Sparge with 170° F water to collect 5.5 gal.

Total boil is 90 min. Bring to boil, add Magnum hops, and boil 30 min. Add 2 oz. Kent Goldings hops and boil 40 min.

Add 2 oz. more Kent Goldings and boil 10 min. Add Irish moss and boil 10 min. more.

Cool to 70° F and pitch yeast. Ferment for eight days at 70° F. Transfer to secondary and condition at 65° F for 10 days. Prime with corn sugar, bottle, and age for five weeks.

OG = 1.088
FG = 1.019
Bitterness = 58 IBUs

Issue: November 1999