Personally, I blame Starbucks. Pumpkin beers existed well before their pumpkin spice latte, but post-PSL, we’ve been inundated with Autumn spice-bomb beers. Classic spiced Christmas beers are hardly better: add clove to the pie spice and you’ve just jumped from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
It’s not that I hate cinnamon or any of the other spices involved. The problem is that brewers let the spices overpower the beer. I’ve even tasted stouts that might as well be black holiday potpourri. Extending the palette can help -- chile heat adds a welcome distraction -- but it’s difficult to mask the cookie cutter sameness of these beers.
If you want to brew in honor of the holidays, don’t contribute to the problem. Instead, consider the flavors and the feelings of the season. Here are a set of ideas that you can mix and match to create your own tradition.
1. Rich Malty Goodness
Winter warmers sometimes include other flavors, but the main idea is to double down on a heavier malty beer. That’s great on its own, but if you combine it with some of the other suggestions, you’re ready to deal with anything the holidays can throw your way. A milk stout, Scottish Wee Heavy, or even an Imperial amber ale can form a firm foundation. Aim for 1.065 at the low end and raise your sights from there. This will give you something to hold the cold at bay while you sit by the fire. One may make your in-laws a bit more vocal, but two should slow them down a bit.
A rich malt base is very versatile. The sweetness can support fruits, balance tartness, or soften other strong flavors, but remember that malt complexity will make each sip its own reward.
2. Focus on Fruit
Fruit flavors are a great way to brighten the darker days of winter, especially dried fruits, like dates and raisins. You can also cut sweetness with some tart cherries or raspberries, or take it up a notch further with citrus or cranberries. I wouldn’t recommend going full fruitcake, although some nuttiness can also work well. Instead, pick a star or two and build a beer around them by drawing on some of the other ideas.
3. Sweets for the Sweet
If you start with a malty foundation, why would you throw more sugar into the mix? Because too much is never enough. Alternative sugars, like caramel, brown sugar, or maple syrup add complexity to the flavor, and will dry out the finish a bit, which can keep things from cloying. On the other hand, if you prefer to emphasize the sweetness, cacao nibs and vanilla bean can work wonders.
Even though it doesn’t add any sugar, I include coffee in this group because it melds well with sweetness and its roast character is a good way to provide a balance between sweet and bitter. If you do opt for coffee, consider a cold brew extraction that offers more depth and nuance.
4. Booze It Up
Real barrel aging is a challenge at home, but liquor soaked oak chips are so easy to use. Like adjunct sugars, the alcohol and the wood can tame a sweet beer. The typical base styles are worthy of consideration, like stout or barleywine, but it could work for a Belgian strong or Imperial red. Bourbon is the usual liquor, but tequila is also good and other choices can be quite interesting. Peaty scotch might go well with a strong Belgian golden ale, for instance.
Be conservative about how long you leave the beer on the wood, because the oak can be overwhelming. If you overdo it, though, you can always stash it away for next year, provided that the base beer is big enough.
5. Spices? Yes, But…
Pretend that the standard holiday spices don’t exist. Cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg? Never heard of ‘em. Look deeper back in your spice rack, ignoring the obvious bad ideas like garlic or onion. As an example, I had a sage beer today that was quite good. Curry or groups of its constituent spices (cumin, fenugreek, turmeric, mustard, chile) can be quite intriguing and I’ve brewed a number of interesting things with saffron and cardamon. Another cool idea is using spruce tips. They may not be in your spice collection, but they do add a nice nod to the holidays.
Learn from the pumpkin spice beer’s mistakes and remember not to overdo it. Let the spices the base beer rather than creating a spice monster.
Pick and Choose
Now you’ve got some tools to make a holiday beer that will stand out. Start with a bigger base beer (option #1) and pick two or three other modifiers and run with them. You can keep it simple and color inside the lines with something like a cherry stout with vanilla, but you can also create something very unique, like a brandied mocha Dubbel.
Keep warm for the holidays!