Winter Ale, although not technically a beer style per se, can certainly be considered a widespread brewing tradition. The custom of brewing a stronger-than-normal dark ale for drinking against the chills of the coldest months of the year is doubtless as old as brewing in Northern Europe itself. As an anonymously written verse from 1656 put it, “When the chill Sirocco blows/And winter tells a heavy tale/O, give me stout brown ale.”

Earlier unhopped or lightly hopped ales were particularly suitable for being heated and spiced, giving rise to such winter’s drinks as ale posset, a drink mixing piping hot ale mixed with bread, milk, sugar, ginger, and nutmeg. Other beer-based winter drinks included lamb’s wool, a combination of spiced hot ale and roasted apples, and egg flip, hot, mild ale mixed with eggs, brandy, and nutmeg.

British winter ales were also flavored by the traditional method of floating spiced toast on the surface, a habit that survived until at least the start of the 19th century, judging by the description in a memoir in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal from March 15, 1845, of “the tankard of winter ale, its creamy top half hidden by the crisp brown toast.”

The rise of hopped beer, which reacts badly to being heated, seems to have meant the decline of hot ale drinks. However, drinkers continued to express a desire for stronger, sweeter, and often darker beers in the winter months. In London, in particular, this was met by the original Burton ale, a type made by the brewers of Burton-on-Trent before they began producing highly hopped pale ales for the Indian market. See burton-on-trent.

Burton ale became a widely available style of beer in the UK, particularly during the colder months. Bass No. 1, the strongest Burton ale in that company’s range, was called in advertisements around 1909 “THE winter drink.” It was a very robust beer, and bottles from the first decade of the 1900s are still enjoyed in fine condition today. In 1949, the journalist Maurice Gorham wrote that Burton, “darker and sweeter than bitter…is also known as ‘old’…many pubs do not keep Burton during the hot weather, counting it a winter drink.” The beer writer Andrew Campbell wrote in 1956 that Burton or Old, “a still stronger type of dark beer” than Best Mild, was on sale “in winter months,” with gravities from 1,040 to 1,050. Barclay Perkins in Southwark, London, renamed its 4K Burton Ale Winter Brew. At least eight London brewers were still making a Burton in the mid-1950s, and Courage at the Horsleydown brewery would send out showcards to its pubs saying, “Courage Burton is now on sale for the winter season.”

However, the fall in popularity of darker ales in the 1960s meant that Burton ale rapidly almost disappeared, about the last one left being made by Young’s brewery in Wandsworth. In 1971 Young’s changed the name of its Burton ale to Winter Warmer, reflecting its seasonal nature and its particular appeal.

Another London brewer, Fuller, Smith & Turner, replaced its Burton ale with a strong bitter, Winter Beer, in 1969. See fuller, smith & turner. Two years later, Winter Beer was renamed Extra Special Bitter, also known as ESB. As the strongest bitter brewed in the UK at that time, it quickly became popular and moved from a seasonal to a year-round brew, inspiring a host of imitators.

The tradition of winter warmer beers or seasonal old ales was revived, like so many other beer styles, from the mid-1970s onward by the growing craft beer sector in the United States, the UK, and elsewhere. These seasonal beers, generally at 5% to 8% alcohol by volume, have an emphasis on darker malts and sometimes use spices alongside hops, recalling the old heated spiced ales. At least one brewer, Hepworth, in Sussex England, encourages consumers to “gently mull” its dark Classic Old Ale, which it describes as “a traditional style of winter beer.” Many winter ales in Europe are dubbed “Christmas ales,” and this is an old tradition, although in the United States this is translated to “holiday ale” out of cultural sensitivity. Spices are common in the American craft brewed beers as well. First brewed in 1975, Anchor Brewing Company’s Christmas Ale has been influential for decades, its name predating worries about religious overtones.

Martyn Cornell