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.