When Winter Warmers Were a Thing

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Younger folks or new arrivals to the Northwest are often surprised to learn about lost beer styles that once dominated the region. Chief among these were “hefeweizens” (American wheat ales), which I have written about. Another fixture of that era, from the mid-80s to the mid-aughts, was ubiquitous beer made by a huge percentage of Northwest breweries they called “winter warmers.” It was a surprisingly uniform style: a 7% dark ale (copper to brown, but generally chestnut), full and malty but with a layer of classic hopping (in the Willamette/Mt Hood vein). The latitude in the style was narrow: sweetly malty to a slightly roasty malt on the one hand, mild to somewhat stiff hopping on the other. It was a beer distinct from other traditions like Anchor’s spiced Christmas ale or Belgium’s biéres de Noel. Its specificity established it as a style in its own right.

The uniformity of the Northwest winter warmer suggested a longer lineage, but this is almost certainly apocryphal. Like amber ales, smoked “Scotch” ales, and those ‘90s hefeweizens, Americans took a shred of information about a dimly understood style and created their own oddball versions of it. Winter warmers were very much in this tradition. There are precursors like old ale, Burtons, and October beer that definitely have standing in the discussion, but the Americans making winter warmers were almost certainly ignorant of them at the time. 

Remarkably, they’re marvelous beers. Unlike some of the other half-understood recreations Americans produced—many of which now seem dated and conceptually flawed—winter warmers are a perfect beer for the season. They have the strength to warm, the malt to soothe, and the best examples are balanced and very drinkable. I loved them when I first started exploring craft beer, and I love them still.

I was at Ex Novo last night and encountered Liquid Sweater, a classic revival of the genre, and a flood of memories came rushing back. The Northwest didn’t have exclusive purview over these beers, but we had a greater density than other regions. In 1988, Full Sail and Deschutes released their (still extant) examples, Wassail and Jubelale. Pyramid made Snow Cap, Redhook Winterfest, both released in the 1980s. Those were the flagship brands responsible for sparking the phenomenon, but by the mid-1990s they were everywhere. Like fresh hop beers today, in the winter season it seemed like every brewery you walked into had a winter warmer on tap—all brown, malty, and about 7% ABV. 

The end of this tradition, or the ubiquity of it, was writ by hops. For twenty years “winter ale” meant “dark,” but toward the end of the aughts beers like Hopworks Abominable and Double Mountain Fa La La La La started carving out territory for “winter IPAs.” Now the idea of a winter beer is whatever a brewery wants it to be. Dark beers don’t sell, and so the stouts and porters that once characterized the Northwest’s winter months have mostly vanished. (When was the last time you saw a porter?) Wassail and Jubelale are still around, so the old winter warmers haven’t died out completely. But once upon a Christmas, they were as common as sleigh bells. 

Jeff Alworth6 Comments