Homebrewing: How to Brew A Winter Warmer

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When it comes to homebrewing, I am a procrastinator. I tend to brew the beer that I want to drink today, not the one I want to drink two months from now, when it will actually be ready for sipping.

But today is different. Today, I am attuned to the footsteps of winter approaching—ice on my car in the morning, clocks falling back to standard time, and Oscar-quality movies queuing up on the marquée. Today, as I sip a summery IPA and finally keg my Oktoberfest ale, I am thinking about what beer I want to drink in the depths of winter, two to three months from now. That beer is a Winter Warmer.

Winter Warmer, or Winter Specialty Spiced Beer, is a Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) recognized style—number 21B. Do not let this constrain your creativity, however, as the guideline is riddled with phrases like, "many interpretations are possible," and concludes with this overall impression: "A stronger, darker, spiced beer that often has a rich body and warming finish suggesting a good accompaniment for the cold winter season." You might ask yourself, stronger than what? Darker than what?

When I create a Winter Warmer, I try to capture the sensation of a spiced seasonal dessert—like gingerbread or fruitcake—brought together with a sip of cognac. It leads me to ingredients like chocolate malt, molasses, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and orange peels—and an alcohol content north of 7%. I also think about yeasts that have spicy or fruity characters, such as Scottish and Belgian varieties.

The key to a delicious winter warmer is to be creative—but also to exercise restraint. We have all tasted commercial and homebrewed Christmas beers that are way overspiced. Think about gingerbread. Sure, you taste lots of ginger, cinnamon, and molasses. But would you enjoy it as much if you left out the flour and butter? The goal with a Winter Warmer is to make what would be a fundamentally good beer in the absence of spices but is improved by the subtle addition of spices and, perhaps, specialty fermentables like molasses. It should be on the sweet side and without much hops character, which would clash with the spices.

How do you know how much spice to add without going overboard? Here are a few strategies:

  • Start with a recipe from a trusted source. For example, Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer use 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ginger, and 1/8 teaspoon each of nutmeg and allspice for 1 minute in the boil in their "Ol' Yule Loggy" in their must-have homebrew reference, Brewing Classic Styles.
  • Experiment. In medicine, we often talk about starting a new drug for a patient with the mantra "start low and go slow." This is also good advice for spicing beer. You can try a recipe with minimal spicing the first time and adjust upward on future batches. If you keg your beer, you might be able to adjust the spicing after you have tasted the final product. (But be careful about introducing bacteria and wild yeast.)
  • Try the Randy Mosher spice tincture method from Radical Brewing. Add some spices to 1/4 cup of inexpensive vodka. Cover and let infuse for at least one week. This is your spice tincture. At bottling or kegging time, measure exactly 1/2 cup of your beer into a tasting glass. Then, using a 1 milliliter syringe (available from a pharmacy as an insulin syringe) add a very small increment (about 0.05 mL) of tincture to the beer, mix well, and take a small sip. If it needs more spice, add another dose of the tincture. When you reach the right level of spice tincture for 1/2 cup, calculate how much tincture to add to your full five gallons of beer. Because of the sips you took, this will slightly underestimate the tincture needed. But that is ok: it's better to underestimate and adjust up later, if needed. You'll probably use about 11 milliliters of spice tincture for a five gallon batch. It does not take much to make a big impact, so use caution.

Do you brew Christmas ales or Winter Warmers? Here's my version, which clocks in at around 8.7% ABV.