Fall has only a few fleeting days when the outdoors actually smells like the season. Raking leaves, pressing cider, roasting pumpkin seeds, walking about a damp cold wooded path ... Spring's got Autumn beat for aromas, in my opinion. Even the beers of fall are the brews we've held on to from another season's brew sessions: Oktoberfests, Saisons, Biere De Garde.
So too with Fall come days where the gray cloudy gloom of morning fails to lift all day. Thus, we find ourselves at the onset of what will be dozens more weeks of cold stagnation. Thankfully, breweries are rushing their winter seasonals to taps & bottles. I used to loathe the oncoming cold. But as a beer nerd, I'm bursting with hope for the pints that will pour malty & plentiful through the year's end - Winter Ales!
Is it really a style? Some say no. Just a compounding of Scottish or English ales with more malt to gird the loins against harsh winds. Breweries have spent their late Summer days preparing to fortify & satisfy the pubgoing faithful with these fine beers of year's end. Categories be damned! The people want a brew that makes the waning warmth of the world seem far from their numb cheeks. Those who wait at cold bus stops or hail taxicabs, bracing eyelids against Alberta Clippers are ready for a special winter brew.
Winter Ale, in essence, is simply a version of popular recipes that have been dressed with more layers of malty coats. Generally, but not always, malt comes before hops as the dominant feature of a Winter Ale. But as with any higher gravity brew, the amount of hops in Winter Ales are equivalently increased to maintain a similar balance. The celebratory cousin of these brews, the holiday beer, is more tied to spice or other special ingredients applied late in the brewing process. A Winter Ale is really just a heartier, fuller-bodied brew for a season that calls for some extra calories to survive the shivers that come with the waning year.
That's not to say, anymore, that one need live in a frigid climate to have either access to (or appreciation for) Winter Ales. Commercially, any inhabitable arid climate is within distribution of a brewery with a focus on helping customers survive Winter's grip. Florida has a pipeline up the east coast, Nevada & SoCal have their Cascadian neighbors, and Europe has plenty of routes through the Alps!
Homebrewers should, ideally, be currently poised to start their Winter brews now, if not having a few already in their kegs from early Fall brewdays. Don't worry if you're just now getting around to it, the Winter Solstice is a perfect fermentation length ahead of us & then there's the far more frigid early months of next year to come. So how can you brew your own?
Traditionally, an ESB or Scottish ale raised to an O.G. of somewhere about 1.060 will be a good start. So, for a traditional Winter brew, start with something you've brewed from those categories & work your way up. Base malt (or extract) can be goosed to your heart's and palate's content. Adjust your hopping, too. An ESB will need about 10-20 IBUs extra throughout its hop addition schedule; a Scottish merely needs a boost at bittering. These rates don't speak directly to brewing science, just consider them a starting point if you wanna pioneer your own brew. Our Winter Warmer kit is a lovely choice.
Lately I've been considering the other various styles that could be tweaked to Winter brew specifications... Belgian Ales are already well fortified for cold times, but try switching to more Munich malt as your base & giving the Caramunich a fuller share of the specialty bill. A strong Altbier with perhaps Hallertau as the choice hop would work for a German style. One could even brew a Winter Lager using a gravity-zazzed Oktoberfest recipe!
Stateside microbrewers are dispelling the myth that Winter Ale means noble hops. Citrus isn't normally associated with braving the cold times, but a taste of Odell Brewing's Isolation Ale taught me otherwise. In a Winter Ale, American hops needn't be used as gaudy as would be in a Pale style, but a poke of Yakima Magnum, propped up with small flavor additions of a Cascade/Mt. Hood balance will send one well out into the darkness of an evening to come with a zesty, malty smile at the top of your mouth!