When it comes to American versions, I think my favorite is the winter warmer from local Fort Worth brewery Rahr. They produce a barrel-aged winter warmer that is well balanced, malty and all around delicious. (They are tapping the first round of kegs at local watering holes like the Gingerman this weekend, for anybody interested.) I find most of their beers to be mediocre and completely overpriced. Their regular beers sell for more than other Texas breweries (such as Shiner or Real Ale) although it is only a few miles away. The winter warmer can only be found in 22oz bottles for around $16 each. However, if you can find it on tap it is usually much, much cheaper.
I am not an expert in adding spices to homebrew. I have added corriander to a saison and a tripel but that's it. I don't think I even added enough to get a useful flavor addition from it. That's a particular problem when one attempts a beer style that is heavily spiced. So for that reason I wanted to start simple with an addition of one or two spices only. To add complexity, I decided to use some homemade dark candy sugar, explained here in an earlier post. I decided a good dark saison would be an interesting candidate for a winter warmer, letting the dark sugar provide both color and complex flavor. My house saison yeast contains brett, so that will provide some interesting depth to the flavor (maybe in a bad way...). I've never heard of a winter beer with brett, which is probably because it throws such weird flavors and usually winter beers are thick and sweet and brett tends to produce a beer that is dry and thin. I decided to add cinnamon as a single spice addition, because I think it goes well with the dark sugar and my wife is a big cinnamon fan. I am somewhat concerned that it will clash with the brett flavors. I guess we'll see.
I actually made this beer back in March. Although it won't be bottled until November and opened in December, there are two reasons why I started so early. First, brett takes a while to get it's groove on. Currently the beer has a pellicle on top (unfortunately the top of the fermenter is caked in krausen so it's hard to get a decent picture) so it's still working away and will need more time to dry out. Second, spices really need time to meld into the beer and I want to give the cinnamon and dark sugar flavors time to meld into the saison and brett character. I might be giving it a little too much time, but due to the brett I had no choice. Better the cinnamon diminish than taste still-fermenting brett (it is not good, I promise) and risk bottle bombs. As an aside, since it will have a higher alcohol content, giving it the extra time will help mellow any harsh alcohol flavor contributions.
Since I was unsure of the quality of this beer, here is the one gallon recipe:
1 lb pilsner malt
.75 lb munich malt
.25 red wheat malt
Mash at 154 for 60 minutes
Boil additions for 90 minute boil:
90 min: .38 oz Fuggles (4.5%)
10 min: .5lb dark candy sugar
10 min: .25lb honey
10 min: 1 tsp cinnamon
5 min: .13 oz Fuggles (4.5%)
Pitched house saison-brett blend.
FG (expected): 1.017
Any other reasonably neutral hop could be substituted for Fuggles -- I don't use them because they contribute a particular flavor but because they are fairly neutral. You could also pitch just saison yeast or a commercial saison-brett blend. The cinnamon could be removed, replaced with something like vanilla bean, or blended with different spices.
I will report back with a review come Christmas-time.