As snow is starting to show in several states, some cannot help but to hope that the rest of Fall is skipped over and the Northern Hemisphere heads straight into Winter. What is so exciting about FastPass-ing the seasons? Beer, of course. Clearly, the beer-zenith of the Fall is Oktoberfest. Unfortunately that thirst-quenching holiday has ended, and beer lovers are again getting parched. Not wanting to be labeled as alcoholics, a new season is needed to justify another string of socially accepted hangovers. Thankfully, Jack Frost brings with him a case of Winter Ale. In fact, Mr. Frost insists you join him for a pint, as we discuss what goes into making a delicious Apres beer.
First, what should one look for in a solid Winter Beer? This category, or beer-egory if you will, is relatively flexible. “Winter Beer” is not an official beer-egory, thus it is not shackled by society’s rules. Different from your sister’s dating habits, however, there are some accepted standards. Many beers marketed as “Winter Ales” could fall under the Old Ale style (but certainly not all), meaning their appearance is a deep amber or copper color, while packing a tough alcoholic punch (6-9% for those of you scoring at home). Traditionally the beer is recognized by a sweet, malty taste, with slight, if any, hop (bitter) flavoring. Most importantly, it is a hardy drink designed to warm its consumer. Pairs well with fireplaces and ski bunnies.
In order to achieve this big flavor and high alcohol percentage, a brewer must start with a hefty grain bill. A five gallon batch of Winter brew, for example, could call for 15 lbs, or more, of malt, versus 8 lbs for five gallons of Pilsner. For brewing systems that struggle to handle that much malt, sugar extract can be used to ensure the ABV (alcohol by volume) will awaken any hibernating liver. Because Old Ales have an English heritage, an English pale malt is often the base malt of choice, accounting for around 80 percent, or greater, of the total grain. Pale malt alone, though, is about as exciting as anything out of Spencer Pratt’s mouth. The beer gets its intriguing dark looks and sexy malty taste from a list of specialty grain additions. Crystal and chocolate malts are very popular, as well as smaller portions of roast or black malts. Pump up the chocolate, roast and/or black malts for a darker color. Pump up the keg stands for an early night.
After the malt has been mashed, it is time to get the wort (unfermented beer) boiling and add the hops. As mentioned before, the presence of hops in the flavor of the finished product should be meek. That said, brewing beer is all about balance, and one must make sure to include enough hops to counter the massive amount of grain used earlier. Expect around four ounces of English varieties such as Golding and Fuggle (as opposed to fuggle)to even the scale. Also, during the boil of Winter beers, brewers tend get into the holiday spirit and give the batch gifts of cinnamon, orange and lemon peel, cardamon, clove and/or allspice. No myrrh or frankincense, however. These spices, added at the end of the boil to draw out their flavor and aroma, are what set Winter beers apart for many. Of course, the addition of spices may thrust the beer out of traditional categories, but as we already discussed, Winter Beers are about heating your insides after you finish carving the snow outside. They are not about conforming.
To ensure that brewing efforts are not wasted, a powerful yeast much be chosen to munch on all the sugar leached from the grain. Scottish Ale yeast, as its name suggests, can handle its alcohol well and is hearty enough to fully ferment the Winter Ale, thus making it a popular choice. If the brewing is begun soon, the beer will have plenty of time to properly ferment and condition before the Fall completely accepts defeat and yields to Winter. At the point, you will also be prepared to to fully enjoy and appreciate the complex Winter Ale. Just as the Samurai studies and knows his enemy, you, the Drinker, now understand the beer you are about to conquer.