Holiday Beers Are Here!
Yes we see this everywhere, even sneaking into the craft scene (how dare they!). As home brewers we have the unique ability to buck the trend and stick to our guns to make something different, something classic, something non-trendy.
This post is about holiday beers and the hype, misunderstanding, and recipes that classify beers as “holiday beer”. If you are discouraged by the intro because you just finished your pumpkin spice ale please follow along and send us your recipe so we can try one.
The Brief History of Holiday Beer
Before you get your nose up at our opening statement, please remember that beer is an old beverage made before the time of Coca-Cola, Budweiser, even before humans were referred to as consumers. Beer was often made with whatever ingredients were available that suited the taste of the community, or in most cases the household. So we shouldn’t stick our nose up at pumpkin beers either! They have much more historical significance than most people realize.
The origins of Christmas or Holiday beers goes back further then the aggressive marketing tactics, synthetic flavourings and sparkly labels we see today. Holiday beer was made to beat the cold, share with friends and family and perhaps be a little more special than the usual daily beers that were consumed. Something we could all use right now.
In other words, maybe there is hope for this style in your home brewery. If you think about it, what better way to stay true to the non-commercial lifestyle then to make a beer that can snub the big guys. This is likely the same approach your local craft brewery takes. Made in smaller batches the ability to experiment is much less of a risk, and many times the rewards can taste delightful.
Intro to Holiday Beer
There is not really not any one thing that places beer into this category. Look at the shelves of your local agency and you will see that everything from Macro lagers to small limited release options posing as holiday beers. Sifting through the marketing and aggressive sales tactics to get you to commit your hard earned money there are a few things to look at to be true to the holiday beer tradition. Here are some general guidelines you can use to help develop your holiday beer or pick one off the shelf. SUPPORT LOCAL BREWERIES first. InBev has enough money to support their CEOs through the holidays. Local brewers often give back to the community by keeping people working, donating to local food banks and their families live next door.
We break holiday beer down into 3 common characteristics: Strength and Age, Spiced and finally Blended.
- Strength and Age
Generally holiday beers have an elevated ABV throughout the world. From Germany, Belgium, US and England most holiday ales will be stronger and have the ability to age. The can either be aged before they were packaged, or may benefit from cellaring. This comes from the need to cellar in the past, and also the desire to have the beer shared. If you find a “session” holiday ale you can almost be certain that a marketing team is grinning like the grinch every time a sale is made.
There is no limitations to the spices used in traditional holiday ales, but keep tit reasonable. The best spices are the fresh ones, not the synthetic flavour additives you can dump in and transform your beer. Also start with whole spices and grind them up before additions. The powdery ones will make your beer cloudy.
Special spices are the best and were used in moderation to warm the soul. Many of them are already associated with the holidays and work really well. Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, coriander and sugar are some examples. Other local fruits and flora were sometimes incorporated as well to compliment the beer. Look for local things such as spruce tips, cranberries or juniper. When you see these beers from larger breweries, they often add flavouring agents as the cost of using real ingredients are too much for the price point. This will give the beer intense flavours that overpower in most cases.
Often the spices used in the traditional holiday ales were also expensive for the household, so they were only used when special occasions were in order and they were used sparingly.
Blending beer is often a trick for home brewers due to space limitations, but holiday beer was often blended in the home. Old ale was often blended with fresh wort to increase volume and use leftover beer. Beer was not the only thing blended, often honey, apple cider or other sugary concoctions were mixed together for a special treat. In some areas beer was even served warm, mixed with eggs and made frothy by injecting a hot fire poker to caramelize the sugars. These types of drinks are often what we see today in the form of egg nog, hot chocolate or mulled ciders and wines (eat that Starbucks!).
To sum things up, making or drinking a holiday beer is a great way to have a special holiday treat, so don’t be scared. Keep things in moderation based on what you like and are familiar with. Over spicing may lead to an expensive failed experiment. Taste your wort as you add spices. There are several online guides to adding spices, sugars, fruit and other concoctions to your holiday beer, or send us a message for some help.
Make a strong beer this year and age it for the future. This can greatly marry the flavours together given time and the proper conditioning temperatures. Imagine serving a dusty bottle from last year to your friends and family next year when hopefully we can all get together again!
Last but not least…SHARE. In true holiday form this is the original spirit of the holiday beer. It is to be enjoyed with others. This year it may be a little more important, but do so safely. Look out for your neighbours and friends, drop a bottle off on their porch and be kind. If you run out of cinnamon while you are making your holiday ale they will be there for you.