People these days long to be a little more in touch with the rhythm of the land and the weather; a lively parade of seasonal beers is a delicious way to do it. And while commercial beers are nice, if you brew it yourself you can have a beer perfectly suited to your taste and mood, season after season. Right now the gales of winter are still blowing, but spring is just around the corner. Time to get brewing.
From Belgium to Finland, and as far east as Russia there is a tradition of spring—or more specifically Easter—beers.
Spring has been most commonly associated with bock beer, the malty brew born from a Lenten loophole, and embodied by the lusty jumping of a male goat. It’s fascinating how if you scratch the surface of Christianity a little, a whole forest of barbarian mythos comes bounding out. Bock is one such strong tradition, but we’ll be skipping it this time around.
Just a little farther afield, from Belgium to Finland, and as far east as Russia there is a tradition of spring—or more specifically Easter—beers. You can’t call this a style. These Paasbiers range from the archaic Scandinavian dark “white” beers called hvidtøl to Belgian confections nearing 10% alcohol. Flavors range from the spicy blonde of Belgium’s De Dolle Bos Keun (Easter Bunny) to the chocolate-tinged Synebrykoff Easter beer from Finland. A colorful range of goodies for your Easter basket, to be sure.
This disorder is liberating rather than confounding, as it leaves us free to honor the season as we see fit. Rather than boil all this inspiration down to one perfect recipe, I’m going to toss out a few springtime beer possibilities and let you use your knowledge and creativity to turn them into full-fledged recipes. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and honestly, it will be more fun that way. Quantities discussed are for five-gallon batches.
Dobbelt-Øl While the traditional Paasbiers might have bumped up the 1.8–2.8% alcohol levels of regular Hvidtøl just a tad, evidence exists for stronger types. We’re talking about a sweet, porterish brew, very rich and nourishing. Despite this characterization, Hvidtøl (literally, “white beer”) was brewed with a large proportion of very pale, even undermodified, malt. So start with a base of pilsner malt. Aim for a gravity of 1055 (13.6°P) and subtract the contributions of the other ingredients to figure out how much pilsener malt (or pale extract) you need to make up the difference. Historically, these beers usually contained a certain amount of dark caramel syrup*, so add a pound or so, right into the kettle. A pound of dark crystal malt like Special B adds an inner richness, and a small amount (1/4 to 1/2 lb) of German röstmalz such as Carafa II will add a ruddy depth.
Hopping should be modest, say about 25 IBU or so. I like a neutral tasting hop such as Northern brewer for chocolatey beers. Speaking of chocolate, we’re within striking range, so if you want to turn this into the ultimate liquid chocolate bunny, add a pound or so of cocoa nibs to the secondary. Alternately, a few grams of caraway take a cue from aquavit and can add a characteristic Scandinavian touch.
India Wheat Ale Think of this as a transitional beer, bridging the gap between the blustery days of March and true weissbier season, which starts mid-May. Nothing too complicated about the recipe: 50% good-quality British or Belgian pale malt, 40% wheat malt, and the rest can be your choice of Munich or a slightly darker malt such as melanoidin/aromatic. Gravity can span the range from 1055 (13.6°P) to a double version at 1070 (17°P).
Hopping needs to be aggressive, but not too wild in character. I’d go with one of the newer, mellow, low-cohumulone varieties such as Glacier or Simcoe. I always enjoy the taste of Tettnangs in wheat beer, so that might be a good fallback, or mix’n'match. Bitterness should be 50+ IBU, with a big load of aroma, either late kettle additions or dry-hopped. As an alternative, you might substitute two to four pounds of the pale malt with German rauchmalz or home-smoked malt. Although this might seem like an odd choice, it actually bumps up against a once-popular Prussian/Polish style called a grätzer, which was pale, smoky and bitter.
Saison du Printemps Tweaking this characterful aromatic blonde farmhouse ale is all the rage these days, so let’s see where that takes us. Maybe if we go a little bit in the direction of a maibock—deep gold, with caramelly touches—that might be nice. So that gets us in the 1065–70 (16–17°P) range. Equal parts of pilsener and Vienna malts (or 2/3 pils plus 1/3 Munich) make the bulk of the grain bill. We can thumb our nose at the Reinheitsgebot by adding a pound or two of partially refined sugar to thin out the body, even as it adds a layer of aroma. I think the clean, creamy taste of Thai palm sugar would be really nice here, although there are many other choices. Poke around your Latin, East Indian or Asian market and see what you come up with.
Hopping should be modest, from 30 to 40 IBU. Saaz and Styrians can’t fail, but other high-class hops will work as well. Avoid anything too extreme. A little herb or spice is welcome, as long as it doesn’t dominate. Grains of paradise offer a mystical peppery bite. To borrow from another beverage—Maywine—a few grams of woodruff adds a sweet herby note. Chamomile, orange peel, sweet gale or ginger could take the beer in several different directions.
While any Belgian yeast will bump up the character, it is saison yeast that separates this style from all other Belgian blonde ales. It’s a cranky, uncooperative yeast, so be prepared to deal with it on its own terms. First, it likes it warm—hot, really—around 90°F. I use a heated pad with a thermostat under my carboys and keep a close eye on the temperature. Second, this is yeast that needs a lot of oxygen. Commercial breweries often have to aerate the second day, although I’ve had good results without taking this step. Third, it’s s-l-o-w. Most commercial breweries add their regular ale yeast after two or three weeks and get it over with. If you’re willing to wait a couple months, it will finally do its business and drop out.
So there you have it, a trio of happy, hoppy brews—half-goat, half bunny. Strap on your bonnet. It’s going to be a great parade.
*Belgian brewers caramel has recently been made available on the homebrew market. Check with your supplier as to availability.