By Chris Jennings
For the Oregon Beer Growler
As the temperatures plummet, those light, crisp summer ales that were a form of escape from the brutal heat are surely being replaced by winter warmers. Ambers, stouts, porters and spice beers are now in season. The most interesting of them all are holiday ales. They can be spiced, but that is not required. For the most part, the best-quality holiday ales have good malt flavor, a solid body and a slight alcohol warmth.
This is an argument for the ages: Do spices have a place in winter beers? There are definitely some spices that, if used properly, can lead to a subtle spice note without overpowering the brew. Of course, a little goes a long way and there is a fine line between just enough and way too much. Unfortunately, there’s no guide or chart we can look to when trying to figure out what combinations of which spices and how much will work best. That’s when good old-fashioned homebrew experimentation comes into play.
The most common spices used in commercial and homebrew beers alike are as expensive as the selection offered at your local grocery store. A handful of holiday-themed ingredients that stand out are dried ginger, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and orange peel. Before selecting a spice mixture, be sure you have a great base beer: something with good body, some roasted notes (without being burnt), a nice caramel roundness and enough alcohol to warm your bones on a cold winter night.
Now that you have a base beer, selecting which spices to use is more or less dependent on personal preference. There’s no rule saying you must use spices in a holiday beer. The malt, hops and yeast selected can lend their own subtle spice notes to the finished produce without the assistance of dried spices. Trial and error is the best way to determine what flavor combinations work best. Of course, if you don’t want to make 50 different recipes to determine the perfect ratio, read up on what flavors the malt, hops and yeast can provide.
If you choose to add spices, they can come in fresh or dried form. These will produce different flavors, depending on which you go with, and can be incorporated at different times during the brewing process. With dry ingredients, add them in the last five minutes of your boil. This is because the flavor and aroma need to be cooked out of the dried spices. You can also soak the dried ingredients in a clear 80-proof or higher grain alcohol. This will create a tincture or extract of the spice you can then use to dose the batch. The best time to add fresh ingredients is after fermentation has almost completely finished, helping protect the beer from infection because there is already alcohol present. That method will also help prevent the fermentation process from gassing off all of the wonderful aromas you’re hoping for.
Naturally as homebrewers, rules and guidelines are meant to be broken, so there’s nothing out there saying your next award-winning holiday ale isn’t going to be a Belgian tripel with cranberries and some fresh ginger root.
Shurly Warmer [AG]
Shurly Warmer [Extract]
By Chris Jennings
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Now that the holiday season is in full swing, it’s the time of year for big, malty spiced ales with alcohol contents that make even the heaviest drinker blush. This style of beer isn’t particularly complicated to make and mastering a solid holiday recipe will ensure that your family gatherings are a bit more festive.
Raid the Spice Rack
There are a number of flavors that seem to define the holidays, and many can be found on your spice rack. We’ll cover some of the most popular that bring comfort when the weather turns cold: allspice, anise, cinnamon, clove, ginger, molasses, nutmeg, orange peel and vanilla.
Allspice: Allspice introduces that potpourri punch that you’ll often encounter in the home decor department of a big box store. While it does have cinnamon notes, there are also hints of clove and nutmeg. Allspice tastes like it smells, so be aware that a little goes a long way.
Anise: One spice that has as many fans as it does haters is anise. The black licorice flavor can be a fantastic addition to a mulled beverage when added with other spices. However, it can be difficult to single out in some beer styles.
Cinnamon: The spicy heat in cinnamon can be warming in a brew, but if used in excess it’s overwhelming. Sweetness and woody flavors are also present.
Clove: With a similar flavor profile to allspice, clove might be more approachable because it has a bit of sweetness. It’s best used with other spices because it can be intense.
Ginger: Ginger root can be found in the produce department, and the difference between using fresh and dried ginger, even in grandma’s pumpkin pie recipe, is quite noticeable. Fresh ginger can provide your brew with a sharp bite and aromatic punch.
Molasses: This should be treated like any other brewing sugar. Add it at the very end of the boil so that it can dissolve without burning or over-caramelizing, which would lead to an unwanted residual sweetness. Be sure to use unsulfured molasses, which is of the highest quality.
Nutmeg: If you’re looking for a wonderfully sweet and nutty touch to a brew, nutmeg is your friend.
Orange Peel: This is another ingredient that can be used fresh or dry. Dried orange peel can be found in two forms: bitter and sweet. Your local homebrew shop will likely have both versions, and if you give them a smell you can accurately determine how they’ll affect your brew. You can also opt for fresh zest from the peel, avoiding as much of the pith as possible, to add a pop of citrus.
Vanilla: If you’re looking for strong vanilla flavor, you can “dry hop” the gooey center of split vanilla beans. Sample the brew every few days to taste the progression to avoid overdoing it. However, you can also add vanilla extract in small doses over time.
All of the dry spices listed should be added with five minutes left in the boil and then steeped while you’re chilling the wort. Fresh ginger and orange peel should go in at flameout or even used as “dry hop” additions to help maintain as much of the flavor as possible.
Now that we have our entire spice cabinet ready for the brew day, the next step is deciding on the base. Style guidelines suggest “a stronger, darker spiced beer that is a good accompaniment to the cold winter season.” Therefore, look to a style that is malt forward, higher in alcohol content and little- to no-hop presence, which will allow the spices to shine. If you do add hops, turn to varieties with spicier notes instead of the citrus bombs that would go into an IPA.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of room to experiment with spiced beers, so have fun playing with the spice rack!
Holly Day Ale [AG]
Holly Day Ale [Extract]
Ron Gansberg (right), brewmaster for Cascade Brewing Barrel House, says the biggest challenge when creating spiced beer is having enough time to spend with the spice in raw form to obtain the most complete understanding of how to use each one. Kevin Martin, lead blender, agrees that time is a huge ingredient. Photo by Emma Browne
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The holidays wouldn't be the same without spices — they infuse the air with warm, welcoming aromas and contribute distinct flavors to food and drink — bringing to mind memories of gatherings filled with family, friends and cheer.
Cascade Brewing Barrel House, led by Ron Gansberg, is a brewery that fully embraces the use of spices in their beers. While they offer spice beers year-round, many people tend to associate fall with the flavorful variety as we begin to turn to seasonal food that works well with spices, like pumpkins and apples, which are also in abundance. One of many spiced beers Cascade turns out is called Pumpkin Smash, which is made with local, organic Cinderella pumpkins from Sauvie Island that are then roasted in-house. The Northwest-style sour ale is barrel aged for 11 months and still highly drinkable at 11.4 percent ABV due to a combination of spices that bring to mind pumpkin pie.
The use of spices is not new, having been a mainstay in beer making since the beginning, but in recent history their presence has been overshadowed by other ingredients — primarily hops. Ron’s work continues to buck that trend and it’s an ongoing project to master Cascade’s spiced beer game. When asked what the biggest challenge is when creating spiced beer, his answer was having enough time to spend with the spice in raw form to obtain the most complete understanding of how and when to use each one. Some spices are more stable than others, retaining consistency throughout the life of the beer; others might be more prominent early on only to eventually fade, quickly or slowly, as the beer matures. That factor is particularly important at Cascade since so many of their beers spend time aging in barrels. Kevin Martin, lead blender at Cascade, explains that when making spiced beer, it must be understood that "time is a huge ingredient."
Just as hops can be added during the boil, during aging or even right before serving by using a Randall, spices may also be introduced at different points throughout the beer-making process. Cascade's spice regimen includes kettle spicing, barrel spicing and spicing at blending, all of which have been developed over time with the help of detailed notes that track how the spices are expressed in the beer. The careful note taking allows Cascade to refine its processes.
Kettle spicing happens during brewing and builds a good base layer of flavor. When added at this point, the flavors have the opportunity to not only be more integrated, but they may also be transformed at the molecular level during fermentation. Barrel spicing doesn't provide the level of integration that kettle spicing does, but just as an application of salt and pepper enhances a dish before it’s served, adding the element as the beer ages is an important step in creating the final product. Both methods are important, each providing their own flavor contribution to the beer. Then comes the "eleventh hour correction," or spicing at blending. This is the blender's last hurrah with the beer in an effort to make it the perfect concoction.
Vlad the Imp Aler, a sour ale that is a blend of blonde quads, tripels and blondes that have been aged more than 18 months in bourbon and wine barrels, was the first spiced beer that Ron made at Cascade. When asked why he first decided to make a spiced beer, Ron said it was because he felt that the spicing complemented where the beer was going and also helped define and frame the brew. As for the how — his process and way of doing things — that’s something he’s intentionally developed through trial and error without turning to other breweries’ methods as a model. While one might think it would be useful to learn from what others are doing, his view is that if he learned other breweries' processes, essentially he'd just be making their beers instead of making his own. That's a pretty enlightened view, even if it has meant that he's had to work harder to figure it out on his own rather than learning from others.
Ron’s independence isn’t the only element that makes Cascade’s beers so unique. The brewery’s extensive blending program also sets it apart. Vlad the Imp Aler is a prime example, drawing from multiple styles and likely multiple vintages each time it's created. And blending is not for the faint of heart. While with brewing you can experiment with test batches, blending cannot feasibly be done small-scale. As Ron explained it, blending is something he’s just had to go forward with despite any fear of the outcome. Were he to have proceeded with caution, giving into uncertainty and concern, Cascade would be light-years behind where they are today. Thankfully, Ron forged ahead.
One of his newest creations is Mulled Apple Sour. Just as Pumpkin Smash was made with spices you’d associate with pumpkin pie, this beer is reminiscent of freshly baked apple pie due to the spices, vanilla and honey. Presented for the first time this year, as the chill was just starting to creep into the air, it's a strong opening act to Glueh Kriek. Cradling the glass of warm liquid is as comforting as being handed a plate of fresh-from-the-oven pie that was almost cut too soon, allowing the warm goodness to ooze out.
Glueh Kriek, a mulled beer some may have enjoyed last year, is both sweeter and more acidic than the Mulled Apple Sour, with an intense cherry flavor and undeniable presence of cinnamon and clove. Deep red in color, served with a clove-spiked orange slice, breathing in its aroma is like breathing in the best of the holidays. It’s a beer that fully embodies the depth and breadth of Cascade’s spicing and blending program.
So what's next for Cascade? There's no clear answer, but Ron is continually bringing in new spices and experimenting with them to determine which express themselves well and which do not. Those in the former group will get further attention to figure out how and when to apply each spice to bring them to their fullest potential. Then there are some that fall in between, such as cardamom, which are much more challenging to apply. Not one to shy away from the challenge, it's more a matter of when, not if, Ron will unlock the key to using it. Whatever the result, it's sure to be a unique creation — the result of the dedication to the craft of brewing, spicing and blending that Cascade is known for.
Cascade Brewing Barrel House
[a] 939 SE Belmont St., Portland
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