We all know the story, the earth rotates along an axis that’s titled in regard to the sun. At some point during the year, that axis is pointed away from the sun. Nights start to get longer, the leaves have fallen from the trees, what was a brisk autumn wind turns into a bitter winter chill, and the trip home seem to be slightly more motivated.
For everybody there’s some annual event that says “winter is here;” it might be the first snow, or it might be the sound of geese overhead. My wife marks the true beginning of the season by the first time it’s cold enough to need a sweater. For me, winter hasn’t begun until I’ve had my first bottle of that year’s Winter Welcome, a seasonal release by that venerable British brewery, Samuel Smith.
Somewhere in the realm of Old Ales and Barley Wine is a seasonal specialty called Winter Warmer. The name is both a description and an evocation. Traditionally, these beer are around 6%-8% Alcohol by volume, full of sweat malt and dark fruit flavors, some versions are spiced, others rely on the yeast for their complexity. The example in question pours out a brilliant amber with rich creamy head. The aroma is a mix of floral notes, honey and caramel sweetness. The flavor is much the same, with added apple undertones, and a very subdued spice presence (from the yeast; this is an un-spiced version). Perhaps understated for those expecting a big American Barley Wine style beer, but for those willing to appreciate it on it’s own terms, a true pleasure.
My ritual to begin the season is a simple synthesis of many of the comforts I’ve grown to enjoy. The beer sits in my cellar, waiting for that first cold night of the year. Then, following a simple meal of hearty stew and home-made bread, I pour the beer into a goblet and spend the next hour or so savoring it and whatever book I happen to be reading at the time.
Of course this ritual gets repeated over the course of the winter with a variety of beers. Other favorite warmers include: Avery’s Old Jubilation,which like most beers from Avery is on the “big” end of the style; Never Summer Ale from Boulder beer, perhaps a little hoppy for the style, but a little hops never hurt anyone; and Breckenbridge’s Christmas Ale, one of the darker examples of the style I’ve seen. I’m also bound to include some other winter seasonal favorites, Winter Warlock (a solid Oatmeal Stout from Bristol), and Left Hand’s ever-changing Fade to Black (Winter of ‘09/’10 gave us a Tropical Stout and ‘10/’11 gave us an incredibly interesting Smoked Baltic Porter), usually make an appearance or two.
The cold of winter serves to remind us of just how warming the simple pleasure really are.