As the holidays begin a full-on blitz of kitsch and technicolor decorations, a joyous appearance is celebrated: winter spiced brews. For centuries, the coming of winter, now considered the holiday season, has heralded the maturation and distribution of strong beer laced with an assortment of herbs and spices.
In the U.S., the tradition of releasing spiced beers near the holidays has become so beloved, huge parties have sprung up. In Asheville, North Carolina, Highland Brewing Company holds its annual Cold Mountain Winter Ale release party just before Thanksgiving. The four-day event draws thousands of revelers.
The history of heady, flavorful spiced beer reaches back in history far beyond the dawn of the Christian era. Centuries ago, pagan Scandinavians began celebrating the winter solstice by drinking strong brews spiced with heather flowers and juniper berries known as “Jul” to their god Odin. The practice became so important to the culture, in the 10th Century, King Haakon I made it a law for every household to produce beer for the solstice.
In more recent centuries, Britain and Belgium joined their northern neighbors creating boozy, sweet ales for the season. British styles, such as Burton ale, barleywine and old ale, are often used as bases for spiced brews. To these robust tipples, brewers often added spices such as cinnamon to amp up the festive flavor.
Belgian spiced ales, while strong, are more balanced than other winter brews. Revered for rich malt, fruity nuances, caramelization, bready flavors and spice, Belgian holiday brews are often sipped before a roaring fire on cold winter nights.
As your calendar begins filling with holiday celebrations, consider the following festive brews as libation for the revelries.
COLD MOUNTAIN WINTER ALE
Brewed by Highland Brewing once a year, Cold Mountain is a lightly hopped, malty ale spiced with an ever-changing slate of spices. Expect big aromas of caramel, vanilla, toffee and brown sugar. A sip will reveal the same flavors as well as cinnamon, hazelnut and light chocolate. The complexity and robust character fall in line with the great winter styles of Britain; find it now as supplies dwindle quickly.
CORSENDONK CHRISTMAS ALE
Originally brewed by monks as a contemplative practice, Corsendonk beers bounced around Belgian breweries for nearly two centuries after Austrian Emperor Joseph II shut down the Priory of Corsendonk in 1784. In 1982, the beer regained fame when the brewery Brasserie Du Bocq in Purnode in the Ardennes took over brewing. Rich and complex, it boasts aromas of chocolate and holiday cooking spices. The palate is smooth with malt, smoke and spice with citrus notes.
YOUNG’S WINTER WARMER
Now a well-established spiced ale, Young’s Winter Warmer began as a much stronger, sweeter Burton ale. Burton ales are pale ales that achieve their darker, richer flavor and color from prolonged aging that allows complex flavors to emerge. To bring this beer more in line with spiced winter beer, a unique cane sugar is added. It brings out aromas of caramel, nuts and a hint of cinnamon. The flavor is mild with malt dominating, slight hops bitterness and hints of dark fruit.