If it’s October, it’s time to start thinking about those holiday beers. I know, I know, it seems early for that, but we all know how the autumn flies by in Beer World, so you’ll thank yourself for getting your yule season’s beers in the fermenter nice and early! One of the more intriguing styles in the BJCP Guidelines is the Winter Seasonal Beer category, and as a wide-open specialty category a lot is left to the imagination and decision-making of the brewer in question.
What follows here is one successful recipe, but it certainly isn’t the only one, since you can use any base style and most any kind of spicing you might be interested in. Having said that, I would caution you to avoid throwing the kitchen sink at this style. It should still be recognizable as beer, and too many special ingredients (or, in my opinion, too much alcohol) can muck up the profile. Start on the low end of your special ingredients (and add to taste, as you’ll see), and you’ll have a go-to Winter Seasonal recipe in no time.
Specialty styles don’t defy description – they just make it boring and conditional. Any base style can be used here (my recipe can just be listed as “Amber Ale” if you’re entering competition and need to identify a style), and the most important advice I can give you is to take note of the category in which this style lives: Spice Beer.
Spice has to be a significant portion of it if you’re going to comply with the guidelines, and other specialty flavors (for example, fruit) need to be absent or restrained (we’re going to cheat on this one and actually add fruit flavor – trust me, though). ABV and body tend to be on the higher end of the scale, but don’t obsess over it – again, specialty beer, not really “required,” just “common.”
The watchword in pretty much every sub-category that carries a “specialty” identifier is balance. Make a beer that clearly expresses each of the stated ingredients while also being recognizable as beer, and you’re good to go.
We’re targeting an ABV of about seven percent, and we want a good backdrop for the spice to come. Start with 12 pounds (5.4kg) of Vienna malt. Why Vienna? Because it’s got some good bready aromatics and hint of spice itself, but it’s not as heavy as Munich, and makes for a terrific base malt (also, on a personal note, at the end of the year I usually have a lot of Vienna leftover, which is how I ended up using it in the first place!). Then add half a pound (0.23kg) each of Chocolate Rye (for color and some mild roast), Crystal 45L (for a kick of caramel and biscuit flavor), and Crystal 90L (for some deeper burnt sugar and dark fruit notes).
That will start you off well – if you end up wanting a more pronounced level of alcohol or graininess, just increase this grist by equal percentages of each until you’re happy. Seven percent ABV works well for me, though: just enough warming to notice it, not so much alcohol that you run the risk of being “hot” if your fermentation doesn’t go quite the way you want. Finally, use one more half-pound of flaked barley – it will add a softness to the mouthfeel that most will interpret as more body, as well as aid in head retention.
Hops are simple: 30 IBUs from any variety added at the start of the boil. Hops don’t really feature in this style – they can, I suppose, but why?
Finally, any neutral ale yeast will do, so I stick with my venerable Wyeast 1007 German Ale yeast (let me plug, one more time, the idea of really learning and sticking with a small collection of “house” yeasts).
You’ll also need some spices on-hand. For our purposes, tinctures of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg, or a quarter-teaspoon of each if you add them dry.
Then our secret ingredient: one eight ounce (0.24L) bottle of pomegranate juice. Trust me. And keep it secret: don’t list it in your “special ingredients” if entering this beer in competition.
Mash and boil as usual, run off into the kettle, and boil. Don’t add the spices yet. Until primary fermentation is complete, this is a plain, regular beer. Post-boil, chill and pitch your yeast, fermenting for about two weeks at 68F (20C). At that point, add half of your pomegranate juice (4 oz.), and either drink the other half or reserve it to adjust to taste.
The flavor will be subtle (it’s only a few ounces into five gallons, after all), but will also be unmistakably “wintry,” and while this might technically make it a fruit-and-spice beer the flavor can be attributed to the subtle fruitiness one can get out of certain malts or yeasts, and so you’re in the clear from a category-definition standpoint! Then add your spices, either ground and into the fermenter or (my preferred method) to taste at bottling via a tincture of each individual spice and vodka.
Carbonate to about 2-2.25 volumes of CO2, and enjoy!
Another version of this recipe includes a lot more chocolate rye and some black patent malt, but too many judges ruled that it was a bit too “rustic” in flavor. If you’re looking for something that feels more like a campsite than a ski lodge, though, double up the chocolate rye and add in a few ounces of the black patent!
In either case, drink this one as soon as it’s ready. It doesn’t age poorly, but the seasonally-evocative nature of the recipe might make it seem out-of-place. Happy (early) Holidays!