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]
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.