Winter warmers have been being brewed for as long as there has been beer and winter-time. They haven't always been called winter warmers but the practice of making a big, higher alcohol beer for late autumn/early winter festivals has always been a favorite practice of brewers. The general festival feeling of this time of year invites sumptuous brews and the higher alcohol gives the drinker that warming feeling; so welcome once the weather has turned cold.
As popular and widespread the winter warmer is, no one seems able to agree on what the style should be. Often a breweries winter warmer is an enhanced version of their flagship beer. In other cases, it is a medium bodied ale and lots of dark spices added. Whatever the interpretation winter warmers are almost always higher in alcohol.
Not surprisingly the ingredients used to make winter warmers are as various as the many interpretations. Many feature liberal amounts of dark and black barley. Hops are usually understated (with a few startling exceptions) and the yeast can range from wild Belgium ale strains to the cleanest of lagers. Adjuncts are often featured and can include fruit, spices, herbs, chocolate, honey, candied sugar and anything else the brewer can dream up.
Tasting winter warmers is one of the great joys of the Christmas season and wintertime. Each one is different and represents the brewers' best and most unrestrained efforts. Expect some pretty wild flavors!
Like barley wine, winter warmers are generally designed to be enjoyed alone. Some of the spicy versions can make interesting companions with cookies or fruit while the big malty brews can make a nice compliment with your Christmas bird be it turkey or goose.