Article

Winter Seasonal Beers

When the weather turns cold, it’s time to seek out the king of all seasonal beers — winter ales. Brewed stronger, richer and more full-bodied, these beers taste great alongside a roaring fire or when hoisting the holiday cheer with friends.

Evocative of the season, winter ales have a tradition in the US, the UK, Belgium and elsewhere. English winter beers are normally called winter warmers, and tend to be dark, full in body, sweet and stronger than average (5.5% ABV and up). They are rarely spiced. American winter beers are usually called Christmas or holiday beers, and are almost always spiced. Belgian winter beers are often slightly stronger (by 1–2% ABV) versions of flagship beers. If they are spiced, the spicing is usually more subtle than American versions.

It’s difficult to describe winter seasonal beers in traditional style terms, since it’s always possible to find exceptions to any description. Perhaps it’s best to just say they are seasonal offerings that have something “special” about them — stronger, darker, spiced, hoppier — basically whatever the brewer wants to do as a gift for customers and that is somehow suitable for the winter season.

I find most English winter warmers to be very malty with a full body and sweet finish. Flavors typical of English Christmas puddings are common — figs, molasses, toffee, caramel, raisins, prunes, dried fruit and so on. In general, they are not roasty but feature dark caramel and dark fruit flavors. As the name implies, a winter warmer should have some alcohol warmth. Beers of this profile are sippers — it’s hard to drink them quickly. Some of my favorite examples are Young’s Winter Warmer, Harvey’s Christmas Ale, Hook Norton Twelve Days and Fuller’s Old Winter Ale.

American Christmas beers can be based on a variety of styles, but are often an amber or darker-colored malt-focused beer. Spices that are associated with Christmas cookies, potpourri and mulled cider are common — cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, clove, orange peel and others. Additional fermentables — molasses, honey, dark candi sugar, treacle, Lyle’s Golden Syrup — are often used to add another flavor dimension. Anchor’s Our Special Ale is a classic example, but is unusual in that it uses a different recipe every year. Many examples have a flavor similar to gingerbread cookies. Spices should be noticeable but not overpowering.

Belgian winter beers are often named Noël/Christmas or Hiver/Winter, and can be based on any style. Some are spiced, and orange seems to be a popular flavoring. I like the Dupont Avec les Bons Voeux (with the best wishes), DeKoninck Winter Koninck, Jenlain Bière de Noel, St. Bernardus Christmas and my personal favorite, De Dolle Stille Nacht (Silent Night, or Christmas Eve) which is primed with honey. They are all completely different beer styles, but all have that special holiday gift theme that makes them both rare and enjoyable.

Brewing Christmas Ales

To explore the style, I’ve found five Christmas ale recipes that have won best-of-show awards in sizeable competitions. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) database lists 1,161 best-of-show winners since these records have been kept. Of those, only eight beers were Christmas ales, and four of those were in winter beer competitions. The four brewers who won those open competitions are represented here; congratulations to them, and I thank them for their help in this article. One recipe is mine (my first best-of-show, incidentally), and the four others are from Ben VanderMeer, John Zelazny, Dean Priebe and Reed Vander Schaaf.

All the brewers agreed on using darker malty styles as the base for the recipe, several of them choosing stouts of some type. John Zelazny said “choose a beer style that is malt-oriented; hops are not the king here.”

The brewers also agreed that residual sweetness is important to the character, and that the best examples often suggest desserts. Dean Priebe described his Sleigh Fuel as “thick on the tongue and sweet” and “resembling Christmas cookies.” Ben VanderMeer credits his wife Elly with coming up with the idea for a hearty match for homemade mincemeat pies and gingerbread, and to be used as Christmas presents. He said “the FG can be high to balance the aggressive spicing; I used a lot more crystal malt than I normally would to add sweetness and depth.”

The use of spices draws strong opinions, as expected. Again, there is near unanimous agreement that spices should be complementary, not dominant. John Zelazny said “too many spices overwhelm the taste buds and turn these beers into a train wreck.” Dean Priebe uses spice extracts (vanilla, orange, cinnamon) and adds them to taste; he says “the base beer should stand on its own and the spices should add an extra dimension.” Reed Vander Schaaf selected the unusual star anise to complement his strong stout, and toasted the spice to bring out the flavor. He isn’t a fan of allspice or clove, so he was looking for something to stand out in competition. My selection of Christmas spices was straightforward, mirroring Christmas potpourri.

Stronger beers can age for years, so consider vintage dating them. I agree with Dean Priebe that these beers also make great cask ales. I have made mine several times to be served on hand pump at Christmas parties.

Recipes

Holiday Prowler — Gordon Strong

(5 gallon/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.058  FG = 1.014
IBU = 19  ABV = 5.8%

Best of Show, Ohio State Fair

Ingredients
9.5 lbs. (4.3 kg) Crisp Maris Otter malt
0.75 lb. (0.34 kg) Scotmalt crystal malt (40 °L)
0.25 lb. (0.11 kg) Crisp chocolate malt
1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) clover honey
½ can Lyle’s Golden Syrup
¼ cup blackstrap molasses
6.1 AAU Goldings hops (60 mins)
(1 oz./28 g of 6.1% alpha acids)
1.0 oz. (28 g) Fuggles hops (5 mins)
Spices: 4 cinnamon sticks, 1 nutmeg
seed, 1 vanilla bean, 7 allspice
berries, 1.5 tsp. whole cloves, 8
coriander seeds, 2 nectarine peels
White Labs WLP002 (English Ale) yeast

Step by Step
Old ale base. Mash grains at 158 °F (70 °C). 90 minute boil. Steep spices (chopped up) in tight mesh bag at knockout for 10 minutes, remove, then chill rapidly. Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C). Prime with muscavado sugar and cask-condition.

Holiday Prowler

(5 gallon/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.058  FG = 1.014
IBU = 19  ABV = 5.8%

Ingredients
4.0 lbs. (1.8 kg) Muntons Light dried malt extract
1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) Crisp Maris Otter malt
0.75 lb. (0.34 kg) Scotmalt crystal malt (40 °L)
0.25 lb. (0.11 kg) Crisp chocolate malt
1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) clover honey
½ can Lyle’s Golden Syrup
¼ cup Blackstrap molasses
6.1 AAU Goldings hops (60 mins)
(1 oz./28 g of 6.1% alpha acids)
1.0 oz. (28 g) Fuggles hops (5 mins)
Spices: 4 cinnamon sticks, 1 nutmeg
seed, 1 vanilla bean, 7 allspice
berries, 1.5 tsp. whole cloves, 8
coriander seeds, 2 nectarine peels
White Labs WLP002 (English Ale) yeast

Step by Step
Steep grains in 3.0 qts. (2.8 L) of water at 158 °F (70 °C) for 45 minutes. Boil for 60 minutes, initially reserving half of the malt extract. Add remaining malt extract and other sugars with 15 minutes left in the boil. Steep spices (chopped up) in tight mesh bag at knockout for 10 minutes, remove, then chill rapidly. Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C).

Star Anise Stout — Reed Vander Schaaf

(5 gallon/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.093  FG = 1.028
IBU = 64  ABV = 8.5%

Best of Show, Santa Cruz County Fair

Ingredients
13 lbs. (5.9 kg) Gambrinus pale malt
4.0 lbs. (1.8 kg) Weyermann Pilsner malt
0.75 lbs. (0.34 kg) Briess Extra Special malt (140 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) Briess roasted barley (300 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) Briess chocolate malt (350 °L)
1.6 lbs. (0.72 kg) Weyermann Carafa® II malt (400 °L)
1.0 oz. (28 g) star anise
16 AAU New Zealand Pacific Gem hops (60 mins)
(1.0 oz./28 g of 15.9% alpha acids)
6.8 AAU German Hallertauer Tradition hops (15 mins)
(1.0 oz./28 g of 6.8% alpha acids)
1.0 oz. (28 g) Belgian Saaz hops (5 mins)
White Labs WLP013 (London Ale) yeast

Step by Step
Strong stout base. Mash for 60 minutes at 158 °F (70 °C).  Boil for 60 minutes.  Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C) for 2 weeks in primary, rack to secondary, and add star anise that has been toasted and broken up.

Bad Santa — John Zelazny

(5 gallon/19-L, all-grain)
OG = 1.085  FG = 1.018
IBU = 40  ABV = 8.6%

Best of Show, New York State Open

Ingredients
12 lbs. (5.4 kg) Canadian Pils malt
1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) Munich malt
0.50 lb. (0.45 kg) Carahell® malt (19 °L)
0.50 lb. (0.45 kg) CaraMunich® malt (30–40 °L)
1.0 oz. (28 g) black patent malt
1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) light dried malt extract
13 fl. oz. (384 mL) maple syrup
1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) dried cherries
12 AAU US Northern Brewer hops (60 mins)
(1 oz./28 g of 12% alpha acids)
Wyeast 1084 (Irish ale) yeast
1 vanilla bean (split)
3 cinnamon sticks (3 inches, broken into pieces)

Step by Step
Strong Scotch ale base. Mash all grains at 152 °F (67 °C) for 60 min. Mash out at 168 °F (76 °C) for 10 min. Add dried malt extract and maple syrup at boil. Steep cherries in 2 qts. (2 L) of first wort runnings for 30 min. Strain out cherries and add this wort at end of boil. Ferment at 62–64 °F (17–18 °C). Dry spice in secondary for 2–3 weeks.

Bad Santa

(5 gallon/19-L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.085  FG = 1.018
IBU = 40  ABV = 8.6%

Ingredients
7.5 lbs. (3.4 kg) light dried malt extract
1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) Munich malt
0.50 lb. (0.45 kg) Carahell® malt (19 °L)
0.50 lb. (0.45 kg) CaraMunich® malt (30–40 °L)
1.0 oz. (28 g) black patent malt
13 fl. oz. (384 mL) maple syrup
1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) dried cherries
12 AAU US Northern Brewer hops (60 mins)
(1 oz./28 g of 12% alpha acids)
Wyeast 1084 (Irish ale) yeast
1 vanilla bean (split)
3 cinnamon sticks (3 inches, broken into pieces)

Step by Step
Steep grains in 3.0 qts. (2.8 L) of water at 152 °F (67 °C) for 45 minutes. Boil for 60 minutes, initially reserving half of the malt extract. Remove 2 qts. (2 L) of wort and steep cherries. Add remaining malt extract and maple syrup with 15 minutes left in the boil. Add cherry steeping wort at end of boil. Ferment at 62–64 °F (17–18 °C). Dry spice in secondary for 2–3 weeks.

Better Not Pout Stout — Ben VanderMeer

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.068  FG = 1.020
IBU = 21  ABV = 6.1%

Best of Show, Great Arizona Homebrew Competition

Ingredients
10.5 lbs. (4.9 kg) US 2-row malt
1.75 lbs (0.79 kg) crystal malt (80 °L)
5.0 oz (0.14 kg) black patent malt
7.0 oz (0.20 kg) chocolate malt
4.0 oz (0.11 kg) roasted barley
6.0 oz (0.17 kg) flaked oats
5 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (60 mins)
(1.0 oz./28 g of 5% alpha acids)
0.5 oz. (14 g) Cascade hops (15 mins)
1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) clover honey (15 mins)
1 tbsp. cinnamon (15 mins)
1 tbsp. nutmeg (15 mins)
2.0 oz. (57 g) freshly grated ginger (15 mins)
2 tsp allspice (15 mins)
0.75 tsp. cloves (15 mins)
orange zest (from 3 medium sweet oranges) (15 mins)
1 tsp. brewing salts (in brewing liquor)
1 tsp. Irish moss (10 mins)
2 packets of Danstar Nottingham dried yeast

Step by Step
Oatmeal stout base. Mash 60 minutes at 155 °F (68 °C). Collect 7.0 gallons (26 L). 90-minute boil. Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C) for 7 days, secondary at 68 °F (20 °C) for 7 days.

Better Not Pout Stout

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.068  FG = 1.020
IBU = 21  ABV = 6.1%

Ingredients
5.5 lbs. (2.5 kg) Coopers light dried malt extract
14 oz. (0.39 kg) US 2-row malt
1.75 lbs (0.79 kg) crystal malt (80 °L)
5.0 oz (0.14 kg) black patent malt
7.0 oz (0.20 kg) chocolate malt
4.0 oz (0.11 kg) roasted barley
6.0 oz (0.17 kg) flaked oats
5 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (60 mins)
(1.0 oz./28 g of 5% alpha acids)
0.5 oz. (14 g) Cascade hops (15 mins)
1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) clover honey (15 mins)
1 tbsp. cinnamon (15 mins)
1 tbsp. nutmeg (15 mins)
2.0 oz. (57 g) freshly grated ginger (15 mins)
2 tsp. allspice (15 mins)
0.75 tsp. cloves (15 mins)
orange zest (from 3 medium sweet oranges) (15 mins)
1 tsp. brewing salts (in brewing liquor)
1 tsp. Irish moss (10 mins)
2 packets of Danstar Nottingham dried yeast

Step by Step
Steep grains in 5.5 qts. (5.2 L) of water at 155 °F (68 °C) for 45 minutes. Boil for 60 minutes, initially reserving half of the malt extract. Add remaining malt extract with 15 minutes left in the boil. Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C)

Sleigh Fuel — Dean Priebe

(5 gallons/19 L, partial mash)
OG = 1.060  FG = 1.018
IBU = 30  ABV = 7%

Best of Show, Novembeerfest

Ingredients
7.5 lbs. (3.4 kg) Briess CBW® Pilsen Light liquid malt extract
6.3 oz. (0.18 kg) ESB pale malt

9.4 oz. (0.27 kg) crystal malt (80 °L)
12 oz. (0.34 kg) black malt
5.6 oz. (0.16 kg) chocolate malt
5.6 oz. (0.16 kg) Carapils® malt
3.1 oz. (87 g) Munich malt (10 °L)

12 oz. (0.34 kg) lactose powder (15 mins)
10 AAU Fuggle hops (60 mins)
(2.0 oz./57 g of 5% alpha acids)
Wyeast 1968 (London ESB) yeast
Vanilla extract
Orange extract
Cinnamon extract

Step by Step
Mash at 153 °F (67 °C). Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C). Add extract to 12 fl. oz. (355 mL) bottles — 7 drops vanilla, 3 drops orange and 7 drops cinnamon per bottle.