Nick Carr on December 5, 2014 0 Comments Beginnings The history of the “Midwinter” Beer finds its beginnings in the Winter solstice celebrations of many ancient cultures and probably has roots that go as deep as brewing’s own past. Many ancient cultures worshiped a sun god. The Mesopotamian’s had Utu, the Egyptians had Ra, the Hittites had Arinna, the Celts worshiped Lugh, The Norse had Frey, and the Greeks raised temples to Helios. Saturnalia, the winter solstice festival of old Rome was celebrated by reversing the order of things, suspending law, and, no doubt, libations-a-plenty. The sun was vastly important to seasonal and daily life and the winter solstice was a significant yearly marker. It was the shortest day and marked the “birth” of more light, longer days, and coming warmth. It would have been something to celebrate. The Celts and Norse both celebrated the solstice by honoring their gods with strong ale. The Vikings celebrated Jul (Yule) on December 21st when cups of a hardy malty ale where passed and offered to up to Thor, Odin, and Frey. The festivities lasted 12 days (hmmm, anyone wanna sing 12 Days of Christmas), and a Jul log was burned to specifically honor Thor. It is thought that the name Jul was taken from another name for the god Odin, Julner. Jul would later transform in spelling to Yule and when Christianity spread to these tribes it was decided by the church to celebrate Christ’s birth at the same time in an attempt to erase and replace the old gods, and so it became Christmas. Luckily the Christian church, while busy attempting to erase old ways, left the tradition of the Yule beer alone. In fact, King Haakon the Good, a Norse king who reigned from 934 to 961, decreed that each man brew a measure of special beer for the Christian Christmastime. This tradition was passed down through Sweden, Denmark, England, and finally the American colonies. Style Characteristics Quick Characteristics Color Range: Varies with base style; usually dark Original Gravity: Varies with base style Final Gravity: Varies with base style IBU Range: Varies with base style; usually above 6% ABV Range: Varies with base style Aroma: Complex & Balanced; Base is Usually Malty, But May Range Widely; Aromatics Should Be Reminiscent of Christmas Flavor: Many Variations Are Acceptable, But Balance is Key to This Style Appearance: Typically Dark, But Can Range From Medium-Amber to Dark Brown; With Off-White or Tan Head Mouthfeel: Wide-Ranging, But Generally Medium to Full; Malty “Chewiness” is Common Food Pairings: Varies with base style; Enjoy With Christmas Dinners Midwinter beers are usually dark in appearance, ranging from a medium toned amber to a dark, rich brown, which sometimes boarders on black. They can appear clear to opaque and a slight chill haze is ok. A robust, excited, off-white or tan colored head is common. The aroma should bring to mind Christmas. The base beer is often malty and robust enough to balance a presentation of spices. Aromatics can range from the fire-warming smells of mulling spices and Christmas cookies to the cleaner smell of spruce boughs. Adjuncts such as honey, molasses, candied sugars, and maple syrup will add distinctive aromas to the whole. Hops are usually muffled and spicy, if present at all. Dark and dried fruit characters, such as plum, raisin, citrus peel, fig, and dates, are common. Can have some warming alcohol quality but should not be overpowering. Though this is a special brew the overall aroma should remain balanced and inviting. Mouthfeel can be wide ranging, but is generally medium to full. A malty chewiness can add satisfaction and roundness to this beer, and is quite common to the style. Carbonation can be all over the map. Warming alcohol is common and adds to the overall pleasantness of the beer, but should remain a mellow sensation, never becoming hot. Balance is key to the taste. Many variations are possible in this frenetic, mostly unbounded, creative casting of the brewer’s art. Examples Of The Style Both the great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup do not judge this style, most likely because Winter beers easily fit into some other style category. So, again trying to keep things fair, and not just rattle off my top ten favorites, I’ve decided to update the top rated Beer Advocate list Jeff used in his Winter Warmer article. Bourbon Barrel Aged Winter Warmer from Rahr & Sons Brewing Co. (Fort Worth, TX) Available in December. God Jul from Nøgne Ø (Norway) Available for the Christmas season, check for the Shelton Brothers distribution closest to you. Highland Cold Mountain Winter Ale from Highland Brewing (Asheville, NC) Available through winter in much many eastern states. Hitachino Nest Celebration Ale from Kiuchi Brewery (Japan) Distributed in the U.S. by United International Inc. and Soltice Trading International. Great Lakes Christmas Ale, Great Lakes Brewing Company (Cleveland, OH) Availability starts in November in many Mideast states. 12 Dogs of Christmas Ale form Thirsty Dog Brewing Company (Akron, OH) Available in many Eastern states- November thru December. Jubelale from Deschutes Brewing Company (Bend, OR) Available September thru December. Distributes everywhere but the southeastern and far northeastern states. Read our review on Jubelale. Isolation Ale from Odell Brewing Company (Fort Collins, CO) Available October thru December. Distributes through the Midwest. Read our review on Isolation Ale. Snow Melt Winter Ale from East End Brewing Company (Pittsburgh, PA) Available November thru April. Winter Solstice Seasonal from Anderson Valley Brewing Co. (Boonville, CA) Available September thru February. Thoughts on Homebrewing As you might guess, looking at the above style characteristics (or lack thereof) the door is pretty wide open when it comes to homebrewing a midwinter beer. This also makes it challenging to give a set of guidelines for this traditional ale. More so, now that the doors have widened even more letting non-traditional styles like white IPA’s (which don’t even fit into the BJCP guidelines) take part. But, I will try to make some sort of succinct accounting of what to consider when ready to brew your own midwinter gift of ale. First, what kind of winter beer would you like to make? The English unspiced malty winter warmer, the spiced winter warmer common in America, or the emerging newest rendition of the Christmas beers, white IPA’s. But hold on, those are just the most popular, you can also do a winter lager, say a Dunkel or Bock; or even A Gruit (a herbal ancient ale). The common beer styles adopted for Christmas brewing include; old ales, porters, stouts, brown ales, dunkels, bocks, white IPA’s, and red ales. And these are just the common ones. If you don’t know where to start you can read and follow Ben’s Brown ale recipe in his Spicing Up Your Holidays Article. No matter what you decide the one character that would likely remain constant across all these styles is a warming alcohol presences because of higher ABV; usually between 6% and 8%, but up to 12% isn’t that uncommon. They are usually darker also, though some lagers and the already mentioned white IPA run contrary to this characteristic. Taking these things into account (or not) the big thing to remember; no matter the style chosen, is this should be a special beer, think of it as a gift, even if it is only a gift to yourself. So, some thoughts along this line. Making it Special: Play With Your Malt Bill: If you are using a recipe you’ve done before tweak it. If you want a slightly higher ABV increase your base malt. Play with the specialty malts. If you usually use a domestic chocolate malt try a Belgian or English chocolate malt, or visa versa. You’ll be surprised how much a few small adjustments in specialty malt can change the character of the finished beer. Consider Your Adjuncts: Adjuncts can also be used to add quick fermentables to increase ABV while adding interesting sweetness. Honey, molasses, dark sugar, maple syrup, or treacle can all be added directly to the kettle. How much you add, of any adjunct is going to depend on the beer style, but generally you wouldn’t use more than around 30% adjuncts. Think About Your Spices: I’m not going to go into spices a whole lot because Ben covers it quite well in his article. Spices and other additions to think about include; cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, star anise, almond extract, vanilla beans or extract, spruce or juniper (much used in Scandinavia), coriander, allspice, pepper, ginger, citrus peel, crabapples, cranberries, and pecan extract. And this is only the tip off an awful big iceberg, so go exploring. The thing to remember about spices is; a little goes a long way. The best Christmas beers will have a tone of spice without making it plain what spices where actually used. Mash Temperature Is Important: Both the English and American winter ales are usually malty, robust, and rich. To get this richness a mash temperature at the upper end of the spectrum should be used. A single mash infusion will work nicely at around 156°F. Downplay Your Hops: Hops should play second fiddle to malt and/or spices, but they should have enough of a presence to play a balancing role, and, in some renditions, can even be quite sturdy. Earth and pine tones fit well into the darker richer beers. Know Your Yeast: Yeast will, again, depend greatly on the style you choose (starting to sound like a broken record). For the traditional darker winter beers a yeast with low attenuation and slight fruity esters will work nicely. Waes hael!