Yup, it’s that time again.
Halloween is just wrapping up, Pumking has already vanished off the shelves, and somewhere out there a turkey is defrosting. Lucky for us the winter warmers and spiced ales are already starting to pop up on tap handles and beer coolers across the country.
But what makes these beers so special, and why do places like Great Lakes Brewing and Sierra Nevada make such a big deal about them?
Jump Straight to the Recipe
What Is A Christmas Ale?
As chilly temperatures move in through the majority of the country we want heavier beers with more body. This is why stouts and porters start to become popular this time of year.
And just like the Halloween season of pumpkin ales, Christmas gets its own overabundance of ales by way of the spiced, flavorful winter warmers we love, the Christmas ales.
So what are they?
Simply put, Christmas ales are stronger beers, with an ABV in excess of 7%, and have complex flavors. They are brewed a few months prior to Christmas so that when they are finally consumed they are well rounded.
These beers can come from a variety of base styles, from dark porters to hoppy IPAs. This gives homebrewers like us a lot of freedom when it comes to flavors.
Christmas Ale Traditions
It used to be a law requiring Christmas to be celebrated with beer. Leave it to the Vikings for such an awesome idea. Every Norwegian household was required to brew a Christmas beer1 or they’d pay a fee to the crown.
These days not only does nearly every Norwegian brewery confer a variation of the winter warmer, but almost all breweries across the globe do as well.
In America, this trend started in the early 1900s. Anchor Brewing Company was one of the first, the grandfather if you will, for the past forty-something years. But since then, the flood gates have opened and the selection is overwhelming.
In northern Ohio, Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Company has a cult following with their Christmas Ale. The season is marked with the “First Pour” then the kegs are tapped at the brewery, and even some years host a special one-off during the summer dubbed “Christmas In July.”
Lines would wrap around the block to get into both events. Tickets would sell out. It was more than a cult following. More like a way of life.
And Cleveland beertenders do something different, something we’ve tried to teach other bartenders to do across the country. When ordering a Christmas Ale (or whatever variation might be on tap) they first wet the rim with a water/honey mixture (or simple syrup) and follow up with a hearty dip in a cinnamon or nutmeg sugar mixture. Like a fancy margarita.
Each drink is a one-two punch of cinnamon tang and cold sweetness.
Pardon us, we need a moment.
Brewing Your Own Christmas Ale
We decided to throw our hat in the ring and provide our own variation, an adaptation of a Ballast Point Pumpkin Ale recipe, and a clone of Christmas Ale, but there are TONs of recipes and clones out there. And don’t forget: YOU’RE the brewer. Experiment!
To make things easier, we’ve provided links to the ingredients if you need to buy them.
Before we go crazy with all these yuletide flavors, remember a Christmas beer is still a beer and should taste as such. Beer. With holiday magic.
If you design your own, remember to design a beer that you want to drink that also reminds you of the holidays. Gingerbread, fruit, toasted flavors all work. Typical flavors are cinnamon, gingerbread, cloves, Christmas cookies. Mix it up!
Spices are added towards the end of the boil or during fermentation. Go slow with the spices, and add as needed. Cinnamon can get overpowering real quick and clove can numb your taste buds. Aim between 7% and 10% and an IBU around 20-40%.
Finally, use our recipe as a guide, not the law. Enjoy!
“It’s Beginning To Taste Like Christmas” Ale - A Brewhoppin Winter Warmer
Extract: 6 lbs Golden light (or extra light) dried malt extract (DME) or 8 lbs extra light liquid malt extract (LME)
Hops: 1.5 oz Hallertau (60 mins)
- 3 cinnamon sticks
- 1 lb honey (your choice)
- 2oz ginger
- .25 oz nutmeg (or 1/8th tsp)
- In a mesh bag, add steeping grains.
- Heat 3 gallons of water in your brew kettle to 165°-170°. Remove from heat.
- Place grain bag in water, cover, and let steep for 30 minutes. Remove grains and let drip dry, 30 minutes. Do not squeeze or wring out the bag.
- Bring the water in your kettle back to a boil.
- Set a timer for 60 minutes.
- Add hops. (1.5 oz Hallertau) carefully, watching for any accidental boil overs. If you are using LME, add it now.
- Drink a beer while you wait. Sanitize your equipment. Sanitize it again if you thought “but I already did that!”
- Boil (15 min warning):
- With 15 minutes left in the boil, add the dried malt extract. Watch for boil over.
- Use a spray bottle with clean water to spray any excess foam that might rise and monitor temperature for boil over.
- Return to a roiling boil and continue the countdown.
- Flame Out:
- Turn off the heat at the end of 60 minutes. To expedite the cooldown process, put the kettle in an ice bath and start a whirlpool.
- Add cinnamon sticks, honey, nutmeg, and ginger.
- Monitor water temperature. Once your wort has cooled to around 85° transport it into your fermentor.
- Bring the fermentor up to 5 gallons using clean, cold water.
- Add the yeast.
- Store in a cool dark place. Fermenting should begin within 24 hours. Agitate the fermentor every few days.
- Fermentation and Bottling:
- For best results let ferment for a week, then move to secondary fermentation.
- After fourteen days in the secondary, bottle.
- For a balanced beer, allow the beer to rest in bottles for three weeks to two months.
- Pour a cold one and enjoy it.
A Few Notes:
Add pectic enzyme to assist in reducing haziness. The honey added at Flame Out will bring out a higher ABV than if added later in the brewing process. Start small with the spices and add as needed. Taste the wort before fermentation. If it tastes good now it will taste great as beer.
And there you have it. A delicious winter warmer just in time to enjoy while wrapping gifts or sitting by a fire on the beach.
ABV: 7%-10% IBU: 30 Final Gravity: 1.005 - 1.016
Our Favorite Christmas Beers
We won’t try to dissuade you from fighting us over your favorite spiced seasonal beer. Hell, your favorite might be one we haven’t tried yet (but desperately need to!). But every year we search out these three beers for those merry times when you just need a beer.
You know what we mean.
3. Christmas Ale
Great Lakes Brewing Company, Cleveland Ohio
Yeah, we mentioned it above in the traditions and this is why it is one of our favorites. It introduced us to the world of cinnamon-rimmed pint glasses and festive cheer. It is also a six-time gold medal winner and has been raking in the awards since 1999.
Each year the start of the season is marked by the “First Pour” event when lucky patrons get their growlers, crowlers at pints filled at the brewery.
Sierra Nevada, Chico, CA
Every year for the past few decades, Sierra Nevada has produced a Christmas IPA. It isn’t too bitter, about 6.8% ABV and full of citrus and pine flavors. Something different from the typical winter warmers but still perfectly suited for the holiday season.
We get it, sometimes you just have to drink an IPA. This is the one to drink this season.
1. 12 Dogs of Christmas
Thirsty Dog Brewing Company, Cleveland Ohio
Every year the recipe hasn’t changed. Like Southern Tier’s Pumking is like a pumpkin pie in a glass that will knock you on your ass, 12 Dogs of Christmas is a perfect combination of toasty malts with heavy cinnamon, honey, and nutmeg flavors. Christmas in a glass at 8.3% ABV.
‘Tis the season for sure.
We hope you enjoyed this deeper look at one of our favorite beers. If you tried the recipe or made variations, please let us know in the comments. What is your favorite addition to making the winter warmer perfect?