The coldest time of the year is approaching, and what better way to warm up than with a strong, spicy beer? Seriously, nothing beats brewing for the winter months. Homebrews are comforting, they make tasteful gifts, they go over great at family gatherings, and they can even help you drown out that song about the reindeer that you can’t seem to get away from. If you’re planning on brewing for the holidays in particular, now is the time to start.
Winter brews are fun because they allow you to experiment with all kinds of flavors and spices you normally wouldn’t use throughout the year. Now the question is what kind of winter beer to brew? Winter beers are typically ales, specifically stouts, because of their stronger taste and full body, but they don’t have to be. Dark lagers can work for his application, and in fact, Samuel Adam’s Winter Lager is one of the most popular U.S. beers of the season.
Once you decide on a brew style, the next decision to make is how spiced you want your beer, if at all. English winter beers are normally called winter warmers, and tend to be dark, full in body, sweet and stronger than average (5.5% ABV and up). They are rarely spiced. American winter beers, often called Christmas or holiday beers, are almost always spiced. Belgian winter beers are often slightly stronger (by 1–2% ABV) versions of flagship beers. If they are spiced, the spicing is usually more subtle than American versions.
Some people don’t prefer those “holiday” spices when it comes to beer, which is perfectly fine, but that doesn’t mean their winter brews have to be traditional. If you choose to go the spice-less route, take a page out of England’s book and try using things like figs, molasses, toffee, caramel, vanilla, orange, honey, raisins, and any other dried fruits. Generally, these beers strive to create a malty, full-bodied flavor with somewhat of a sweet finish.
If you like American-style spiced winter brews, think gingerbread cookies and mulled cider – cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, clove, etc. These flavors should be no more than complimentary in the final product, and can be combined with most of the other flavors mentioned above (especially the molasses, vanilla, caramel, and orange). Typically these additional flavors, spices or not, are steeped in a teabag or cheese cloth towards the end of the boiling process. How long you want to steep them depends on the strength of the flavors and the specific recipe.