By Chris Jennings
For the Oregon Beer Growler
As the temperatures plummet, those light, crisp summer ales that were a form of escape from the brutal heat are surely being replaced by winter warmers. Ambers, stouts, porters and spice beers are now in season. The most interesting of them all are holiday ales. They can be spiced, but that is not required. For the most part, the best-quality holiday ales have good malt flavor, a solid body and a slight alcohol warmth.
This is an argument for the ages: Do spices have a place in winter beers? There are definitely some spices that, if used properly, can lead to a subtle spice note without overpowering the brew. Of course, a little goes a long way and there is a fine line between just enough and way too much. Unfortunately, there’s no guide or chart we can look to when trying to figure out what combinations of which spices and how much will work best. That’s when good old-fashioned homebrew experimentation comes into play.
The most common spices used in commercial and homebrew beers alike are as expensive as the selection offered at your local grocery store. A handful of holiday-themed ingredients that stand out are dried ginger, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and orange peel. Before selecting a spice mixture, be sure you have a great base beer: something with good body, some roasted notes (without being burnt), a nice caramel roundness and enough alcohol to warm your bones on a cold winter night.
Now that you have a base beer, selecting which spices to use is more or less dependent on personal preference. There’s no rule saying you must use spices in a holiday beer. The malt, hops and yeast selected can lend their own subtle spice notes to the finished produce without the assistance of dried spices. Trial and error is the best way to determine what flavor combinations work best. Of course, if you don’t want to make 50 different recipes to determine the perfect ratio, read up on what flavors the malt, hops and yeast can provide.
If you choose to add spices, they can come in fresh or dried form. These will produce different flavors, depending on which you go with, and can be incorporated at different times during the brewing process. With dry ingredients, add them in the last five minutes of your boil. This is because the flavor and aroma need to be cooked out of the dried spices. You can also soak the dried ingredients in a clear 80-proof or higher grain alcohol. This will create a tincture or extract of the spice you can then use to dose the batch. The best time to add fresh ingredients is after fermentation has almost completely finished, helping protect the beer from infection because there is already alcohol present. That method will also help prevent the fermentation process from gassing off all of the wonderful aromas you’re hoping for.
Naturally as homebrewers, rules and guidelines are meant to be broken, so there’s nothing out there saying your next award-winning holiday ale isn’t going to be a Belgian tripel with cranberries and some fresh ginger root.
Shurly Warmer [AG]
Shurly Warmer [Extract]
By Chris Jennings
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Now that the holiday season is in full swing, it’s the time of year for big, malty spiced ales with alcohol contents that make even the heaviest drinker blush. This style of beer isn’t particularly complicated to make and mastering a solid holiday recipe will ensure that your family gatherings are a bit more festive.
Raid the Spice Rack
There are a number of flavors that seem to define the holidays, and many can be found on your spice rack. We’ll cover some of the most popular that bring comfort when the weather turns cold: allspice, anise, cinnamon, clove, ginger, molasses, nutmeg, orange peel and vanilla.
Allspice: Allspice introduces that potpourri punch that you’ll often encounter in the home decor department of a big box store. While it does have cinnamon notes, there are also hints of clove and nutmeg. Allspice tastes like it smells, so be aware that a little goes a long way.
Anise: One spice that has as many fans as it does haters is anise. The black licorice flavor can be a fantastic addition to a mulled beverage when added with other spices. However, it can be difficult to single out in some beer styles.
Cinnamon: The spicy heat in cinnamon can be warming in a brew, but if used in excess it’s overwhelming. Sweetness and woody flavors are also present.
Clove: With a similar flavor profile to allspice, clove might be more approachable because it has a bit of sweetness. It’s best used with other spices because it can be intense.
Ginger: Ginger root can be found in the produce department, and the difference between using fresh and dried ginger, even in grandma’s pumpkin pie recipe, is quite noticeable. Fresh ginger can provide your brew with a sharp bite and aromatic punch.
Molasses: This should be treated like any other brewing sugar. Add it at the very end of the boil so that it can dissolve without burning or over-caramelizing, which would lead to an unwanted residual sweetness. Be sure to use unsulfured molasses, which is of the highest quality.
Nutmeg: If you’re looking for a wonderfully sweet and nutty touch to a brew, nutmeg is your friend.
Orange Peel: This is another ingredient that can be used fresh or dry. Dried orange peel can be found in two forms: bitter and sweet. Your local homebrew shop will likely have both versions, and if you give them a smell you can accurately determine how they’ll affect your brew. You can also opt for fresh zest from the peel, avoiding as much of the pith as possible, to add a pop of citrus.
Vanilla: If you’re looking for strong vanilla flavor, you can “dry hop” the gooey center of split vanilla beans. Sample the brew every few days to taste the progression to avoid overdoing it. However, you can also add vanilla extract in small doses over time.
All of the dry spices listed should be added with five minutes left in the boil and then steeped while you’re chilling the wort. Fresh ginger and orange peel should go in at flameout or even used as “dry hop” additions to help maintain as much of the flavor as possible.
Now that we have our entire spice cabinet ready for the brew day, the next step is deciding on the base. Style guidelines suggest “a stronger, darker spiced beer that is a good accompaniment to the cold winter season.” Therefore, look to a style that is malt forward, higher in alcohol content and little- to no-hop presence, which will allow the spices to shine. If you do add hops, turn to varieties with spicier notes instead of the citrus bombs that would go into an IPA.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of room to experiment with spiced beers, so have fun playing with the spice rack!
Holly Day Ale [AG]
Holly Day Ale [Extract]
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.