As the season turns, so does the weather, and of course, so do our beer preferences. For some, wintry brewery offerings make the long, cold months tolerable. Brewers design them as a means to capture the season with a warming and more formidable character, or with a bit of panache to pair with the fare and ambiance of this time of year.
There are plenty of styles that are a perfect match for cooler weather, doppelbock, wee heavy, Baltic porter, barley wine, imperial stout, old ale and Belgian dubbel among them. Most of those can be purchased year round, and wouldn’t really be considered seasonal. On the other hand, holiday brews are a different animal altogether, giving the brewer an opportunity to experiment, put a twist on a classic style or create a unique brew altogether. This attitude captures perfectly the essence of homebrewing, and in many ways, so do holiday ales.
Holiday ales can be placed into one of two camps: unspiced and spiced. The former often play on a preference for sweetish, malty and fuller beers, a “winter warmer” approach. Spiced brews are based on familiar styles as often as not. The possibilities for homebrewers are many, and they draw upon any national tradition. Both winter warmers and spiced brews will benefit from at least a couple of months of conditioning and aging, as they are stronger than normal brews. This will also give the unusual combinations of flavors time to marry and mellow, so early fall is when you need to get busy.
Commercial versions are usually heralded as holiday, winter, Christmas, Noël or some other variation on the season, and generally share a personality reliant on malt flavors and reserved hop character. To avoid alcohol and hop bombs, 6 to 8 percent ABV and hop rates in the 30s will provide balance and more than enough room to play around.
If base malts are the backbone of a beer recipe, then character malts are the flair and nuance, and winter warmers are a great showcase for them. They range in color from amber to deep brown, the malty flavors from soft, honey sweetness to deep, rich caramel, to chocolate and raisin. The key is to settle on the type of winter warmer you want and choose the appropriate character malt.
If you can resist the urge to make a dark beer, use Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome as a template for a rich and creamy winter warmer that offers soft fruit, firm malt and caramel. A simple recipe of English pale ale malt, extract, or combination of the two, and a pound of medium crystal (60 L) or Caramunich® III malt will suffice. Tradition says to use English crystal, but Caramunich® will add a bit of malty depth to the recipe. Aim for an OG of 1.060 to 1.070, hop lightly at 30 to 35 IBU with East Kent Goldings, and ferment with an estery English ale yeast. It will compliment anything that holiday fare and festivity can dish up.
More common winter warmers are dark, and could best be described as in the camp of strong brown or old ale. These offer up the most complexity and are a study in malt nuance for the homebrewer. Fiddle with blends of crystal (sweetness, toffee), Munich, Caramunich® (toasted sweet maltiness, bready), biscuit (bready), cara-aroma, aromatic, melanoidin (intensely malty), special B (burnt sugar, raisin, molasses, figs), chocolate (nutty, cocoa, coffee) and black patent (roasty, espresso) for up to 20 percent of the grist. Munich malt as part of the base is also an excellent choice, as is a small measure of wheat or oats for mouthfeel and head retention. These brews pair nicely with roasted meats, spicy desserts and a crackling fire.
Belgian brewers also offer Christmas, or Noël ales, usually dark, and roughly in the dubbel or strong dark mold. Sweet, fruity and spicy, they are dessert in a chalice. Abbey yeast is notorious for throwing off esters, but also hints of cinnamon, anise, nutmeg and clove, making Belgian dubbel-inspired Christmas ale a prudent choice. The yeasty byproducts marry well with dark malts like aromatic, chocolate and special B, but also the toasted grain goodness of Munich malt.
Belgians have absolutely no problem using sugar in their recipes (and frankly, neither should anyone), so this would be a chance to add a raw sugar like turbinado, muscovado, piloncillo, jaggery or varietal honey. Ethnic and natural groceries sell some of these unusual unrefined sugars. They are quite complex in their own right, and beg for a home in strong dark Belgian ale.
For lighter-colored Noël brews, use light and medium crystal malt, as well as Munich for character. When selecting yeast, look carefully at the specs and pick one that suits you, since they are as different from each other as any other brewing ingredient, and may not be comfortable fermenting in the cooler temperatures that fall will bring. Try tweaking your favorite saison recipe into a winter specialty.
Fall brings the first wave of spiced seasonals, usually in the form of pumpkin ale, followed closely by holiday ales. Too often, these brews are so heavily spiced that there is little evidence of beer beneath them. When constructing spiced ale recipes, it pays to put a fair amount of thought into both the selection and dosage: many a holiday ale has been rendered undrinkable by overzealous additions. An ounce of dried, or two ounces of fresh spice goes a long way in a five-gallon batch of beer.
Fresh ingredients are always best, and usually cheaper. Natural foods markets carry bulk spices, and these can be purchased and handled just before adding to the wort. Ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, star anise, clove, coriander and juniper berries, all great considerations for holiday ale, can be purchased whole, allowing the brewer the opportunity to crush, grind or grate right before use. This will help retain essential oils and aromatics greatly. Extracts are acceptable substitutes, vanilla especially, but again, are more expensive and less aromatic than whole. Fresh orange or zest is used in mulled cider, but it is also an excellent choice for spiced ale.
Spiced ales know no boundaries as far as commercial brews are concerned, but most seem to be based on dark beers like old, brown, amber ale or porter recipes as a foundation.
Spiced ales are also a great place to show a little flair with sugar additions. Jaggery, piloncillo or turbinado sugar and their hints of molasses marry well with anise and cinnamon, not to mention special B malt. Orange blossom honey is perfect for boosting the warmth and spirit of a recipe, but also lends the herbal citrus notes that are found in other holiday ciders and desserts.
Holiday ales are good an opportunity as any to put your brewing mettle to the test and talent on display at your wintry soirees. There are a few checks and balances, but the only creative limits are your own.