What are Holiday Ales, and What is a Winter Warmer? (A Style Guide, Plus 9 Popular Brands to Try)
Updated: Jan 5
It’s that time of year already–winter beers are hitting the shelves with styles like holiday Ale and Winter Warmer, from big-name commercial brands to smaller craft options. Yes, November marks the beginning of the spiced and winter beer season.
What is a Winter Warmer, and what is the difference between a Winter Warmer and a regular ole holiday or Christmas Ale?
A Winter Warmer is a traditional beer style brewed with a Wassail or English Strong Ale base. Winter Warmers are dark amber to dark brown with a dominant malt flavor and aroma. Hop aroma is present with medium bitterness. Wassail versions are brewed with nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, or clove. English Strong Ale versions are spiced with English hops.
We sometimes call Winter Warmers “Christmas” or “Holiday” ales, but the names have been used interchangeably in modern times. The main difference, although small, between a Christmas Ale and a Winter Warmer is essentially the base beers used to brew them; Winter Warmers use an English Strong Ale or Wassail base, while Americanized Christmas Ales might not use either.
Really, the differences in names come down to interpretation. The two have more similarities than differences, and they taste great!
Popular Winter Beers to Try this Year
Year after year, more and more breweries release winter beers for the bitter cold months of the year. Winter beers keep us warm and cozy during these harsh conditions with rich malt flavor, baking spices and high ABVs with warm alcohol flavors. If you’re interested in learning more about Winter Warmers and Christmas Ales, there is plenty to try.
Here are nine winter beers for you to try this year, all of which are available at Bridge City Beverage while supplies last:
Cinderlands She’s A Beaut
Brew Gentlemen The Trees
Arboretum The Best Present Under the Tree
Tröegs Mad Elf
Great Lakes Christmas Ale
Cinderlands Lotta Sap
Harpoon Winter Warmer
Southern Tier Old Man Winter
Sly Fox Christmas Ale
1. Cinderlands She’s A Beaut
She really is beautiful. Cinderlands’ She’s A Beaut is a “holiday IPA” with an American IPA base. It’s brewed with spruce tips and sweet orange peel for a unique Christmas flavor that’s fresh and crisp. Chinook, Centennial and Citra hops are showcased in this beer for added citrus flavor–mostly recognizable as grapefruit. She’s A Beaut is a beautiful 7.4% ABV.
2. Brew Gentlemen The Trees
Brew Gentlemen The Trees is another spruce-focused American IPA designed to have you feeling especially cheery during the holiday season next to your Christmas tree or other holiday decorations. Its evergreen flavor comes from spruce tips partnered with Hallertau Blanc and Citra hops for a balanced taste of sweetness and bitterness. The spruce flavor is dominant in this beer. It has a 6.1% ABV.
3. Arboretum Trail The Best Present Under the Tree
The Best Present Under the Tree---for those 21 and older, of course. This hazy pale ale is brewed with barley and oats for a pillowy soft mouthfeel and full body. Juniper berries and spruce tips give this beer its unique flavor and aroma, making it a beer that anyone would be happy to pull from underneath the tree. Hop additions include Simcoe, Cashmere, Amarillo and Southern Cross for big fruit aroma and mild bitterness.
4. Tröegs Mad Elf
One of the most famous beers during the winter months, Tröegs Mad Elf is a favorite for its potent winter beer profile. Cherries, Pennsylvania honey and chocolate malt, are used alongside a spicy Belgian yeast to brew this beer. It’s a perfectly balanced sweet, bitter and spicy concoction that clocks in at 11% ABV.
5. Great Lakes Christmas Ale
Great Lakes Christmas Ale is another famous name around these parts. You can’t have cold winter evenings by the fireplace without a balanced spicy and malty beer to keep you warm. Great Lakes Christmas is made with holiday spices and sweet honey and is an excellent representation of the winter ale style. It sits at a 7.5% ABV.
6. Cinderlands Lotta Sap
Lotta Sap is Cinderlands’ holiday West Coast imperial IPA featuring Colorado spruce tips and sweet orange peel. It packs loads of bitterness and fresh fruit aroma from the Idaho 7, Comet, Cascade, El Dorado and Citra hops used–each of these strains is commonly used in West Coast-style IPAs to give them their bitter characteristics. Lotta Sap has an 8.4% ABV.
7. Harpoon Winter Warmer
Harpoon Winter Warmer is an East Coast winter tradition. Since 1988, this beer has worked hard to give us those holiday spice notes we so desperately crave in a good winter ale. It uses sweet caramel malt to balance its holiday spice additions of cinnamon and nutmeg. Harpoon Winter Warmer has a 6% ABV.
8. Southern Tier Old Man Winter
A great list of seasonals wouldn’t come complete without mentioning Southern Tier. The New York brewery’s Old Man Winter is a winter ale with a bready malt backbone and earthy hop notes to pair with the English yeast strain used. This gives it fruity esters and aromas to complement the hop bitterness and malt flavor. Grab one of these crisp 7.5% winter ales at Bridge City Beverage while they last.
9. Sly Fox Christmas Ale
Spiced ales make great winter beers – Sly Fox Christmas Ale is a prime example. This beer swirls together holiday spices to create a full-bodied, aromatic Christmas ale. It’s brewed with cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg and clove, reminiscent of your favorite holiday baked goods. This jolly holiday ale chimes in with a 6.3% ABV.
Winter ales are a great way to stay warm during the frostbit season. Some offer a balanced sweetness to pair with gingerbread cookies and others come with a warm alcohol flavor to indulge in during an evening with friends.
Stay tuned for more information on these beers and other winter and holiday styles. If you have questions about the availability of these or any other beers, give us a call.