Twelve Beers of Christmas
Holiday icons seem to settle into the same old routine; beers are not immune. And while I enjoy the wassail-inspired brown brews that return every year, much of the fun of homebrewing lies in the surprising, the fun, the new.
So, in that spirit, I present a brewer’s dozen, minus the accompanying song. Because of space limitations, these brewing instructions are somewhat sketchy. But if you’ve brewed a few batches already, you’ll be able to fill in the gaps quite nicely.
1. Caramel Quadrupel. Gravity: 1100; color: deep reddish brown.
A caramelized sugar and malt mixture imparts a lingering toffee-like quality. Mix a pound each of light malt extract and white sugar in a heavy saucepan. Heat until the mixture melts; stir only enough to mix together and continue heating until it starts to darken. Use your judgment about when to stop. Once it starts to brown, things happen quickly, but it can get fairly dark before it will make the beer taste burnt. When done, remove from the stove and cool by lowering the pan into a larger pan of water. Once cooled, add brewing water and reheat to dissolve the caramel, then add to your brew in progress.
2. Pumpkin Barley Wine. Gravity: 1095; color: deep orange-amber.
This uses freshly roasted pumpkin to add flavor. Split a 5- to 7-pound pumpkin horizontally, discard seeds, place cut side down, and roast in the oven until soft and somewhat caramelized. Brew a barley wine recipe, but add to the mash the roast pumpkin, mashed and skin removed. If you want to do an extract version, do a mini-mash of pilsner malt with an amount equal to the pumpkin. Mash as normal and complete the brew as any other barley wine. Dose your secondary with a tiny amount of pumpkin pie spice, 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon. Ferment with ale yeast, and allow plenty of time for aging. Hopping can be high or moderate. Let the pumpkin shine by avoiding large amounts of high-alpha hops.
3. Saffron Tripel. Gravity: 1090; color: orange-gold.
Pick your favorite Belgian tripel recipe as a start. If there’s no sugar in it, substitute 20 percent of the base malt for some unrefined sugar, such as turbinado or piloncillo. Jaggery (Indian palm sugar) is lovely. Add the zest of one orange at the end of the boil, along with a pinch of crushed grains of paradise or black pepper. Ferment with Belgian ale yeast, and add 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads after transferring to the secondary.
4. Cocoa Export Porter. Gravity: 1085; Color: deep reddish brown.
My version of this brew is called “Pudgy McBuck’s Celebrated Cocoa Porter.” It’s a rich and creamy strong porter, enriched by the addition of cocoa. A mix of 2/3 pale ale malt (mild ale is better if you can get it); 1/3 biscuit or amber (roast it yourself–bake pale malt for 25 minutes at 350 degrees F); plus 4 ounces of black patent. Add 4 ounces of cocoa–look for the lowest fat content–1/2 hour before the end of the boil. Hop to about 40 IBUs; an ounce of Northern Brewers for an hour ought to do. Ferment with your favorite ale yeast.
5. Juniper Rye Bock. Gravity: 1080; color: deep reddish amber.
This beer is a hybrid between the rustic Finnish sahti and classic German brews. Start with a bock recipe with half or more Munich malt. Substitute 2 pounds of crushed rye, cooked like oatmeal and added to the mash, for 2 pounds of the malt. Add 1/4 pound of crushed juniper berries to the mash. The rye will make the mash quite sticky; add a pound of rice hulls before sparging. Use 2 ounces of juniper at the start of the boil and another 2 ounces at the end. Lager yeast and cool temperatures would give the smoothest flavor, but ale yeast yields a lovely beer.
6. Fruitcake Old Ale. Gravity: 1075; color: medium brown.
Friends of mine preserved their chocolate wedding cake by brewing it into an Imperial stout. While I’m not recommending that you do this, it is possible. However leaden the cake, the dried fruits in this “delicacy” can be delicious in beer. Brew an old ale, not too hoppy, and ferment through the primary. Assemble 3 pounds of dried fruit: raisins, apricots, cherries, blueberries–whatever–plus the zest of two of oranges and two whole cloves. Pour boiling water over the fruit mixture to rehydrate; allow to stand for an hour to cool and plump, then mix with the beer, which has been racked into a vessel with some headspace. Also add 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Allow to sit for a month, rack, allow to clear, then package.
7. Dark White Beer. Gravity: 1070; color: medium brown.
Inspired by Pierre Celis’s creation, Verboden Vrucht, this is part white beer, part dubbel and part weizenbock. Use 60 percent barley malt, 40 percent wheat malt. Color comes from a mix of Munich malt (half the barley malt) and a pound of dark crystal, plus an ounce or so of black malt. Hopping can be light, as is traditional, or a little heavier, but keep the aroma hops subdued. I like Northern Brewer hops for their chocolatey bitterness. Add half an ounce of crushed coriander and the zest of an orange at the end of the boil. For more spice zip, make an infusion in vodka of the same spices, strain and add to the beer before carbonating. Ferment with your favorite Belgian ale yeast.
8. Honey Ginger IPA. Gravity: 1065; color: pale amber.
Ginger was a popular ingredient in British beers prior to 1850, and here we’re pairing it with a dab of honey. Start with an IPA, and brew and ferment as normal. Once transferred to the secondary, add 2 pounds of honey, plus 2 ounces of candied ginger, chopped coarsely. This is a higher quality ginger than the stuff in the produce section, at once less pungent and less earthy. I would use British East Kent Goldings exclusively.
9. Crabapple Lambicky Ale. Gravity: 1050; color: pale pink.
Crabapples add not only a festive touch, but tannins and acidity as well, which makes it easier to get that tart, champagne-like character without extended aging. Brew a simple pale wheat recipe. If mashing, go low (145 degrees) and long (2 hours). Ferment with ale yeast, Belgian or otherwise. Obtain 3 to 4 pounds of crabapples (cranberries work also), wash well, then freeze. Thaw and add to the beer when it is transferred to the secondary, along with a package of Wyeast mixed lambic culture. Allow to age on the fruit for two months, then rack, allow to clear, then bottle. Lambic character will continue to increase with time.
10. Gingerbread Ale. Gravity: 1055; color: pale brown.
Liquid cake! One of our Chicago Beer Society homebrewers hit me with this one a few years ago, and the flavor was quite striking. The gingerbread flavor depends on a specific balance of spices used in the common dessert. Use 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon allspice, 1/4 teaspoon cloves. Just add them at the end of the boil. The base brew should be a soft brown ale, lightly hopped, with no pronounced hop aroma.
11. Spiced Bourbon Stout. Gravity: 1050; color: India ink.
Take your favorite stout recipe and dose it with a vodka infusion. Into 6 ounces of vodka and 2 ounces of bourbon (more if you wish), add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1/4 teaspoon allspice, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 2 tablespoons crushed coriander, 1 whole star anise (or 1/4 teaspoon ground), 1/4 cup crushed juniper and a pinch of black pepper. When beer is ready to package, pull off some 1-ounce samples. Use a pipette or syringe to dose the samples with the strained infusion, increasing until you find the right dose. Then scale up and add an appropriate amount, plus a little extra to account for aging.
12. Abbey Weizen. Gravity: 1045; color: hazy deep gold.
This one’s easy. Take a classic Bavarian weizen recipe and ferment it with a Belgian abbey yeast. For a little more zip, add a little citrus peel–try a tangelo for a fairly close approximation of the Seville/Curaçao orange. A tablespoon each of coriander and chamomile added at the end of the boil provides even more depth.
A brewer since 1984, Randy Mosher is a nationally recognized writer and authority on brewing and beer styles. He is the author of The Brewer's Companion (Alephenalia Publications, 1984), Radical Brewing (Brewers Publications, 2004) and Tasting Beer: An Insider's Guide to the World's Best Drink (Storey, March 2009). In addition, Mosher consults on package design and branding.