Searching for the Origins of the Spiced Winter Warmer

The tradition of releasing a special beer for the cold, short days of December is centuries old, a tradition that has only intensified with the shift of the craft beer industry toward a rotating mix of seasonals and one offs. In the latest episode of the Pat’s Pints Podcast, Mark and I sat down with long time Barley’s brewmaster Angelo Signorino to discuss Winter Warmers and other holiday ales. While doing research for the show I started wondering about the origins of the spiced Winter Warmer. When did it become fashionable to put baking spices into beer? Could spiced Winter Warmers be traced back to a singular beer, as they can for Pilsners (Pilsner Urquell) or Hazy IPAs (Heady Topper)? What follows is my not entirely successful investigation into this question.

European Traditions

To put the spiced winter warmer into context, let’s begin with a brief overview of European winter/holiday beer traditions, starting with the Scandinavian Jul Ale. The Vikings celebrated the solstice with a strong, malty beer called Jul (or Yule) ale. Songs were sung, meat was roasted, and drafts were offered up to the Norse gods. Even after their conversion to Christianity, and the Jul celebration merged with Christmas, laws were established that required each household to brew a measure of beer for the celebration and to share the beer with at least three other households.

Although the Scandinavian tradition of holiday beers is still extant, one can make a good argument that British brewing traditions have exerted a much greater influence on modern American craft brewers. The English Winter Ale or Winter Warmer, is a stronger, richer offering than the beer served throughout the rest of the year. It is thought to have evolved from October beers, ales brewed in October that feature recently harvested barley and long maturation times. These beers, which were largely brewed in estate breweries of the gentry, were strong ales with starting gravities near 1.100 and a finished abv in the vicinity of 10%. While beers like Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale are less potent than their predecessors, the same can be said of nearly all British beers. In contrast to the Winter Warmers of the Midwest, the British tradition does not involve spices.  Here is a description of this style written by Gordon Strong, principal author of the BJCP style guidelines, from a Brew Your Own article on winter beers:

I find most English winter warmers to be very malty with a full body and sweet finish. Flavors typical of English Christmas puddings are common — figs, molasses, toffee, caramel, raisins, prunes, dried fruit and so on. In general, they are not roasty but feature dark caramel and dark fruit flavors. As the name implies, a winter warmer should have some alcohol warmth.

That’s not to say there is no European tradition of using spices in holiday ales. Belgians love Christmas beers almost as much as Americans, and the vast majority of Bieres de Noël are spiced. However, Belgians approach spices in a very different way than Americans do. Spices are meant to be background notes that accentuate the flavors of the beer without drawing too much attention to themselves. Consider the spice additions in a Biere de Noël recipe from Alexis Briol, brewmaster at St. Feuillien, printed in Jeff Alworth’s wonderful The Secrets of Master Brewers (Storey Publishing, 2017):

  • 1 gram (1/4 teaspoon) cinnamon powder
  • 0.5 gram (1/8 teaspoon) chamomile
  • 1.5 grams (3/8 teaspoon) curacao orange peel
  • One-quarter of a bourbon vanilla bean

Mind you this is for a five-gallon batch of a 10.5% abv, 18 IBU beer. At this level, the spices are almost subliminal.

West Coast Awakenings

As is the case for many styles of American craft beer, the earliest iterations of a modern-day Christmas beer can be traced to Northern California. Anchor Christmas Ale, the granddaddy of American Christmas beers, was first released in 1975. With a recipe and a label that changes from year to year, Fritz Maytag and the crew at Anchor departed from the English tradition by adding undisclosed spices to their holiday offering. I can’t speak to what the 1975 version tasted like, but this year’s version is darker and stronger (7.0% abv) than any previous iteration, much like 2020 itself. There’s a distinct molasses/treacle note to the beer and an underlying spiciness that lingers at the finish. While the presence of spices is hard to miss, it’s difficult to pick out individual spices. The overall effect evokes notions of gingerbread cookies or maybe S’mores.

In 1981 Sierra Nevada went in an entirely different direction with their iconic Celebration Ale. This amber-hued holiday classic features accents of pine and grapefruit that come from freshly picked Pacific Northwest C-hops (Centennial, Cascade, Chinook), and why not given the coniferous nature of the Christmas tree. If Celebration Ale is not the first modern-day American IPA, it’s pretty damn close. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the idea of brewing a hop-forward ale has not been emulated nearly as much as the spiced Christmas ale. One notable exception is Citra Noel by Columbus Brewing Company. In this 21st century update on the hoppy holiday ale, CBC has used Citra hops in place of the more traditional Centennial and Cascade. In a nod (perhaps) to Celebration Ale, Citra Noel is amber colored, featuring a rich but not cloying malt backbone. The blend of hops and malts in the 2020 version makes for a wonderfully balanced beer.

Oregon’s Deschutes Brewing was another early adopter of the holiday beer tradition. Their holiday offering, Jubelale, first released in 1988, is more in the tradition of the English Winter Warmer. No spices are added, but the combination of malts, including crystal malts and roasted barley, and hops, most notably East Kent Goldings, meld to give suggest the presence dried fruits and subtle spice notes akin to gingerbread. Like the Anchor Christmas Ale, Jubelale features a unique label every year.

Spiced Winter Warmers

We’ve worked our way up to 1988, the year craft breweries started appearing in Ohio, and while spices have crept into a few holiday beers, so far there’s been nothing in the mold of the cinnamon and ginger forward holiday ales that dominate the shelves in this part of the country.  At this point our story turns predictably to Great Lakes Christmas Ale. Brewed with honey, ginger and cinnamon, its success has spawned myriad imitators across the Midwest. I’m sure anyone who turned of drinking age in the last few years would have a hard time believing it, but there was a point in time where scoring a six pack of Great Lakes Christmas Ale was a special treat (see also KBS, Hopslam, Bourbon County, Zombie Dust, all filed away under Gen X beer geeks wax poetic about the past). While the influence of the Great Lakes Christmas Ale is undeniable, is it really the first Midwest Spiced Winter Warmer and if so where did the inspiration for that combination of spices come from?

Before we can go any further, we have put a date on the debut of Great Lakes Christmas Ale. Fortunately, I happen to have a signed copy of Rick Armon’s 50 Must Try Craft Beers of Ohio (Ohio University Press, 2017) on my bookshelf. Surely that must be the definitive source of information on one of Ohio’s most iconic beers. So, I was a bit surprised when I turned to page 35 and found this description:

The funny thing is that before Great Lakes launched the brand in the early 1990’s—the brewery honestly can’t remember what year exactly—there really wasn’t a Christmas beer style.

Not fully satisfied, I called Rick, who is never hesitant to profess his love of Christmas Ales. He confirmed that when he was doing interviews for his book no one at Great Lakes could remember when the beer was first brewed. He then went onto say, “weird isn’t it.”

My next stop was the Great Lakes Brewing website, which if you dig down to the fact sheet for the Christmas Ale, claims that the beer was first brewed in 1992. I guess someone at Great Lakes thought it might be worthwhile to dig up the history of their best-selling brand. On the fact sheet they give the following text when speaking about the style itself: Spiced Winter seasonal beers date back to the Middle Ages when spices were used in place of hops to add flavor to beer. The style re-emerged in the late 1800s in Western Europe via mulled versions of holiday ales, and has gained a resurgence thanks to winter beers featuring seasonal spices. Spiced Winter beers tend to be stronger, darker, and warming.

This description would suggest, that gruits (precursors to hopped beers) and wassail, were the inspiration rather than Anchor Christmas Ale or Belgian Biere de Noël. Here I think it’s best to focus on wassail instead of gruits. Yes, people used to put spices in beer, but that tradition was simply the practice of the time. On the other hand, wassail is closely associated with the Christmas season. The idea that American Craft Breweries were trying to emulate wassail is also favored by Jeff Alworth in his description of spiced holiday beers in The Beer Bible (Workman Publishing, 2015). He also provides an intriguing wassail recipe from 1835:

Pour a pint of strong, hoppy beer over a half-pound of brown sugar and grate nutmeg and ginger into the mixture. Add three slices of lemon and two sugar cubes rubbed over lemon peel. Next put the whole thing through another fermentation lasting a few days, with—oddly enough—toasted bread added to the mix. After a few days it could be served (presumably warmed) with hot roasted apples floating in it.

By modern standards that’s a pretty strange recipe, but we do see nutmeg, ginger, and the peels of citrus fruits, all of which can be found in many of today’s spiced Winter Warmers.

What about the Barley’s Christmas Ale, a long time Central Ohio favorite that was first brewed in 1993? That would make it a contemporary of the Great Lakes Christmas Ale, and while Great Lakes has gone through many head brewers over the past three decades, Angelo Signorino is still brewing at Barley’s just as he was in 1993. During our podcast Angelo told us that Barley’s had been brewing their Christmas Ale for several years before he became aware of the Great Lakes Christmas Ale. This is not surprising given the limited distribution of craft breweries and brewpubs in Ohio at that time. He also said they were cautious with the spices, starting with honey (sourced from Greene County) and zested orange peel the first year. Then in 1994 they added ginger to the mix. Finally, in 1995 they added sticks of cinnamon from the nearby North Market, and they’ve stuck with that combination ever since.  

Angelo did not say exactly where he got the idea to add that particular mix of spices, but he did point out that there’s a pretty similar recipe in Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. I own a copy of the 3rd edition, and sure enough on page 219 there is the following recipe for a beer called Holiday Cheer:

  • 7 lbs plain light malt extract
  • 0.5 lb crystal malt
  • 2 oz black malt
  • 1 lb light honey
  • 2 oz Cascade hops (bittering)
  • 0.5 oz Saaz hops (finishing)
  • 1 oz (28 g) freshly grated ginger root
  • 1 stick or 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • grated peels from 4 oranges

Here we see all the ingredients that one normally finds in the Midwest spiced winter warmer – honey, cinnamon, ginger and orange peel. (We also see that Charlie is calling for 12 times more cinnamon than Alexis Briol did in his Biere de Noël recipe.) Could this recipe have inspired the brewers at Barley’s and Great Lakes? The third edition was printed in 2003, but the second edition came out in 1991, and the first edition in 1984. After posting this article Justin Hemminger of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association confirmed that the same recipe can be found in the 2nd edition. So, the recipe in Papazian’s book predates all of the Ohio-brewed spiced Winter Warmers, which makes it entirely plausible that his recipe might have planted the seed of an idea that grew into the bustling trade in spiced winter warmers that has spread to every corner of the Buckeye state and beyond.

Conclusions

It seems that a Winter Warmer spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and honey evolved organically in both Cleveland and Columbus. Another venerable spiced holiday ale that dates to the 20th century is the now discontinued Sam Adams Old Fezziwig, a staple in their winter variety pack for decades.  Featuring cinnamon, ginger and orange peel, Old Fezziwig was very much in the Midwest Winter Warmer vein. While I wasn’t able to track down when Old Fezziwig first appeared, my podcast partners Angelo and Mark, both recall that it was available in the early 1990s. Of course, we all know that most of Sam Adams beer is brewed in Cincinnati, not Boston, so it seems that a spiced holiday ale tradition cropped up in all three of Ohio’s major cities more or less independently. It’s hard to say definitively if the inspiration for these beers came from Fritz Maytag or Charlie Papazian or a bowl of wassail, but it’s undeniable that Ohio’s spiced Winter Warmers have played an outsized role in making the style as popular as it is today.  

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