Up until the past two hundred years, many beer styles were identified by the season in which they were produced. Although commercial refrigeration has allowed most beer styles to be brewed year round, winter ales remain one of the few styles that are still only released during their own season. For millennia there has been various brews produced in different cultures for the winter solstice and holiday season. The historic egg flip combines warmed ale with egg, brandy (or rum), and spices stirred with a red hot fire iron. One of the first accounts of wassail, a medieval English Christmas custom, dates back to 1140 AD. There is still debate about whether wassail and its close relative, Lamb’s wool, refers to more of a mulled cider or mulled ale however the term still is used in both industries. Many of these original winter warmers were ales (did not contain hops) but over time beer (does contain hops) became the more prominent beverage. The bitterness in hops becomes harsh when heated and winter warmers slowly fell out of fashion. Not all winter warmers were mulled and many received an extra dose of alcohol and spices to give the brew a warming character. By the 1960’s there were only a handful of examples found throughout the world and the style was near extinction.
Bringing it back
Anchor Brewing Co.’s Our Special Ale (sometimes just called, Christmas Ale) is considered the beer that brought back the winter warmer style. It was first brewed in 1975 as a discreet release during the season. At first Anchor Brewing’s Fritz Maytag did not want to draw attention to this blending of a religious holiday with beer so the original label featured a simply drawn Christmas tree. Fortunately the beer was very well received and the following year it received a flashy label with a giant sequoia on it. Every year since then the label is adorned with a different hand-drawn tree for each vintage (visit the Anchor website to see all forty-three labels). The original label was drawn by bay area artist, James Stitt, who continues to draw the label each year.
In addition to a new label, the brewery also changes the recipe each year. The first version was an English-style brown ale dry-hopped with Cascade hops. It wasn’t until 1987, when Fritz produced a spiced ale for his own wedding, that the brewery began using spices in the recipe. To this day they have never released any of the recipes and each year beerdoes have animated debates over which additions found their way into the brew. The only spice that Fritz has confirmed has never been in the recipe is cloves. This phenolic aroma is produced naturally during fermentation (think hefeweizen) so the clove-like aroma people pick up on is from the yeast and not from the addition of actual cloves.
The 2017 Our Special Ale features a Santa Lucia fir on the label and pours a deep cola color. This year’s vintage has a noticeable increase in alcohol (6.7% ABV), body, and foam head retention when compared to previous years. Overall the beer has an aroma of cherry and fig with a treacle-like malt flavor and a bitterness that lingers with an herbal note reminiscent of black tea and anise. There is a distinct acidity that balances the malts, keeping the beer fairly dry and giving the dark fruit character a cranberry-like sharpness. This year’s version relies more on a complex roasted maltiness than heavy spicing. The elaborate spice and fruit additions in previous vintages can occasionally make this beer taste a bit muddy yet that is not the case with the 2017 vintage.
After Our Special Ale, Samuel Smith Winter Welcome Ale is one of the most classic versions of this genre of beer. Charles Finkel, a wine importer at the time, read Michael Jackson’s (the world’s most famous beer writer, not the musician) opus, The World Guide to Beer (originally published in 1977). The book inspired Charles to leave the wine trade and begin importing beer. He commissioned Yorkshire’s legendary Samuel Smith’s Brewery to brew a range of almost extinct English ale styles, including a winter warmer for the holidays. By the nineties the beer was incredibly popular and inspired a range of other breweries to make their own interpretation of the style. The beer is still on the shelves today and is a personal favorite. It has a touch of honey malts and a light apricot note accented by a white pepper-like spiciness. The beer is malty yet light and refreshing, making a good accompaniment to a Christmas ham.
One of the other traditional beers found during this season is Samichlaus Bier, originally brewed by the Hürlimann Brewery in Switzerland the brewing rights were later transferred to the Austrian brewery, Schloss Eggenberg, who continues to brew it today. At 14% ABV it was once known as the strongest beer in the world and still ranks as one of the strongest naturally fermented lagers on the market. Samichlaus is brewed only on December 6th, the day that the Swiss celebrate St. Nicholas, and is aged for ten months before being released the following winter. The rich flavor of the beer pairs well with desserts however I usually prefer this brew by itself as an digestif. It’s robust strength makes this beer ideal for aging and high end beer bars will offer a range of vintages.
La Brasserie Dupont is more associated with the saison style than the winter ale traditions. Their Saison Dupont Vieille Provision is considered the definition of the saison style. Lesser known is the special winter saison, Avec les Bons Voeux (“with our best wishes”), they release each year. This beer was originally brewed in 1970 as a gift to the brewery’s workers but quickly became a favorite among the few outside of the brewery who got to try it. The beer became an annual tradition and is a nice change from the heavily spiced ales often associated with winter brews. The effervescent saison has a bright floral nose and a distinct lemon meringue character with a hint of spicy phenols in the finish. These light and sharp flavors provide a nice contrast to goose, duck, lamb, and the other rich meats served during this season.
One of the most festive beers of the season is Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. Unlike most Christmas ales, this beer is not a celebration of the holidays but rather the hop harvest. This IPA is brewed each year using hops fresh from the field. The hop harvest takes place in late fall and this beer is usually released around the end of November, making it a nice addition to turkey sandwiches made from Thanksgiving leftovers. This beer was originally brewed in 1981 and in this age of double and triple IPAs it is easy to forget that back then a fresh hopped ale was a revolutionary concept. It has a caramel maltiness and an American hop aroma of pine and citrus. For many early craft beer aficionados this beer was considered one of the most extreme beers on the market and thirsty drinkers would eagerly wait for its release. Today it is still a classic of the season.
Locally, it is Telegraph’s Winter Ale that is most associated with the season. This beer is inspired by Mexican hot chocolate and contains sweet ancho chilies in addition to cinnamon, allspice, and vanilla. With hints of caramel malts and a tart plum note, this beer is refreshing while still providing a spicy warmth to the chest. It goes great with Christmas tamales but it will only be released in kegs this year so make sure to swing by the brewery to grab a growler to go. Whichever of these wintry brews you choose, any of them will make a nice addition to your holiday table or just a large sitting chair and warm blanket.
Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, November 29, 2017