Brewing Holiday Beers: Tips from the Pros

Holiday Brews: Festive beer is only a hop, spice and fruit away

With the holidays approaching, this is the perfect time to expand your repertoire with a festive holiday beer recipe. Friends and family will soon be visiting, and with all the parties you’ll attend, stronger and more experimental beers can make this a year to remember. Spices, fruits or heavy hop additions are three ways to create that special brew.

In most cases, there is no trick to making holiday beers. Usually it  just involves tweaking an old recipe to raise the malt content and balance the increased sweetness with more hops. Any other additions are clearly a matter of taste.

Three professional brewers offer some advice on what it takes to make holiday beer. They tell us what the style “should” be like and what kind of targets they shoot for in their holiday brews. Their thoughts reveal one simple fact: this is one “style” with plenty of room for experimentation.

Brewer: Stephan Danckers

Stephan is the founder of Crooked River Brewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio. He has a Master’s Degree in Brewing Science from U.C. Davis.

My general rule with holiday brews is moderation. I’ve had plenty of brews with intense hoppiness or heavy spices, but these aren’t qualities we shoot for at Crooked River.

Our Yuletide Ale is a big English ale with a strong malt character. We get a starting OG of about 1.068 and ferment down to about 1.020 OG. The result is a full-bodied brew that’s heavy in alcohol. Celebration ales should be a bit stronger. I suggest homebrewers aim for a starting OG of 1.064.

We use Cascade hops to achieve medium hoppiness and add a combination of clove, ginger, cinnamon chips and orange peel at the end of the boil. The cloves are used very moderately. Between 5 to 10 whole cloves should add a nice hint of flavor to 5 gallons. Ginger is the next spice (about 1/4 ounce per 5 gallons), followed by the cinnamon chips. Crush between 5 to 10 cinnamon sticks for five gallons. Finally, the orange peel is the most dominant spice. Use the peels of three or four oranges for 5 gallons.

We add the spices in a big tea bag, then steep it for the last ten minutes of the boil. Longer than this and the aroma will boil away. The spices continue to sit in the wort during the whirlpool for about an hour. As for yeast, we use our standard house ale strain: Wyeast 1056.

Brewer: Steve Dresler

Steve has been head brewmaster at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California. 

We’re starting to brew our Celebration Ale today (September 13)! And we just finished brewing our Harvest Ale, which is kind of our precursor to the Celebration Ale. It’s made with 100% wet hops. That means the hops have been off the vine for less than thirty hours when they are added to the brew. Though the Harvest Ale is quite similar to Celebration Ale, the hops make for a noticeable difference.

When creating our holiday brews, we had to work within our traditional boundaries. This meant we would focus on hops to create the flavors we wanted instead of herbs and fruit. We found that the right hops would give us the spice and citrus flavors normally associated with the holiday style. We use Chinook hops for bittering, Cascade hops to finish, and we dry-hop with Cascade and Centennial hops.

We shoot for about 60 to 65 bittering units which, for homebrewers, translates to double the hops of regular pale ales and goes quite a bit heavier with the final hop addition. The hop oils that contribute the spice and citrus are extracted only during dry-hopping. Whole hops are clearly superior and will give you  the desired holiday flavors that we’re talking about here.

We wanted something big, like a winter warmer. Our target starting OG is 1.064 and ending OG is 1.056. This gives us an alcohol content of 6.8% by volume.

Brewer: Jason Tomsic

Jason, of the New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado, has been with NBB for three years. He previously worked at Abita Brewing Company in Abita Springs, Louisiana. He attended the diploma course at the Siebel Institute.

Frambozen — a fruited brown ale of Belgian origin — was first brewed by New Belgium Brewing Company during the winter of  1992.

Our Frambozen is not a traditional Christmas beer in any sense, but the high gravity makes it a great winter warmer, and the full raspberry flavor gives you a refreshing memory of stopping to snack on wild raspberries during long mid-summer hikes.

If you would like to brew this beer at home, I would shoot for an OG of 1.064. The mash should be roughly 75 percent pale malt, 10 percent Munich malt, 4 percent sugar, 10 percent caramel malt, and 1 percent chocolate malt. Add corn sugar during the boil.

Bittering hops are very low. roughly 20 IBUs. Add these hops early in the boil. We hop very minimally for flavor or aroma as we find that the hops will conflict with the fruit characteristics of the finished beer. Ferment down to 1.014 FG, holding temperatures barely above 68° F. Use a neutral ale yeast (like Wyeast 1056) or a Belgian ale yeast, or even both. After fermentation rack your beer off the yeast and chill it around 30° F if possible.

After 2 weeks of aging, rack your beer (being careful not to transfer any sediment) onto raspberry pulp. This pulp should equal 20% of your total beer volume, so if you are making five gallons of beer, you should rack onto 1 gallon of pulp. If you use raspberry juice, decrease the amount to 10% of your total beer amount (1/2 gallon for a 5-gallon batch). The high alcohol content should eliminate any sanitation concerns but wash the berries as well as possible.

Rack off the raspberry pulp after about two weeks, then let your batch settle again for several days before bottling.

Issue: December 2000