Every season has its beers, but it seems as if the end of the year shifts quickly from light summer brews to the ambers and pumpkin beers of autumn and then again, even quicker, in the winter to heavier, holiday selections and winter warmers. Although beers and ales have been brewed for countless generations, few beers are steeped in as much historical significance and lasting power than those we drink with gusto throughout the gloom and chill of wintertime.
First, a fun fact about winter: It’s cold and terrible. So cold and terrible, in fact, that the ancient Romans decided that the time of January and February should just be one sad, long dark time until the spring equinox made the world a better place again. After the Julian calendar and the subsequent Gregorian calendar came into play, those months gained and retained their identities to this day, but they never decided to mend their less-desirable qualities.
But that’s why we have life-giving beer! More specifically, that’s why we have holiday ales and winter warmers. As we all know, alcohol has a warming effect on the body, so it’s no wonder we enjoy beers during the colder months. But, we are not looking for the crisp, 4.5%-ABV pilsners of the summertime — instead, we’re looking for heavy, dense, spicy, and robust beers that hit the ABV threshold. We a Fizzics respect the power of the seasons too much to neglect speaking to the winter seasonal selections that look so good coming out from the tap!
Back in times of yore (circa 18th century), English brewers were at the mercy of the elements and the harvest to determine which beers to produce at certain times of the year. Therefore, winter warmers, as we know them now, were brewed with the grains readily available to meet the needs of the season and complement the savory flavors of the seasonal foods we love so much. These beers went by many names, including strong English ale, old ale, barley wine, and Burton ale, but were not called winter warmers until the 1970s. They were historically high in alcohol, ranging from 5.5% to 8.5% ABV, and were full of heavy malty flavors and colors as dark as the unforgiving winter nights.
Not much has changed since then! They still retain the dark colors and ingredients, and one winter warmer can still make anyone a cheap date.
Much like the winter warmers, holiday ales originated across the pond, but they were not brewed for winter survival, but for festivity. These British ales, typically brewed with excess spices we now associate with the winter holidays (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, ginger, etc.), were once served warm and spiked with liquor, sugar, and even eggs! They were brewed for the Winter Solstice, Christmas, New Year, and Twelfth Night celebrations.
The most popular of these concoctions was the wassail, a term taken from 12th century Old Norse salutation, ves heill, meaning “to be healthy.” The word transformed into waes haeil in Old English, retaining the original meaning, and was later used as the name of the drink itself. This ale was usually served warm in a communal bowl to show respect to nature and give thanks for successful harvests.
Today, modern versions of holiday ales are still brewed for the winter season and consumed in infinitum throughout the season, frequently at happy hours, company holiday shindigs, and to get through dysfunctional family Christmases.
If you get nothing else from this, please remember that the best way to celebrate (and survive) the holidays and winter snaps is with these historic beers! And, regardless of your preferences, a strong, chocolatey porter or a spicy Christmas ale will taste even better through the tap of a Fizzics DraftPour.