Thinking about brewing a beer for the holiday season? Christmas beers bring joy and cheer to all the adults sitting around the crackling fire. All those familiar holiday flavors wrapped in a delicious beer…what more could you want under the tree?
Christmas beer, holiday beer, or winter seasonal, is a beer brewed to be consumed during the winter holiday season. Christmas beers are spiced with typical holiday flavors. Think cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and clove. Spices give character and seasonality to these strong brews.
Brewing Christmas beer at home is simple. It just takes a bit of planning and the right blend of spices, technique, and holiday spirit!
Here’s how to brew the best Christmas beer this holiday season!
Christmas beer is specialty beer that is brewed to be consumed around the winter holiday season. No matter your religious or spiritual affiliation, Christmas beer (or winter beer) can be consumed by all. It’s a celebration of the end of the year and the coming winter months.
The flavor of Christmas beer aligns with other cold weather and holiday beverages. Drinks like mulled wine, hot apple cider, spiced eggnog, and hot toddies. Spice-forward and warming, Christmas drinks – and beer – should evoke feelings of holiday cheer.
The BJCP defines the style 21B. Christmas/Winter Specialty Spiced Beer. In this article, we’ll broaden their definition to make a more inclusive version of a holiday beer. We think Christmas beer should be brewed how you like it, using the ingredients special to you.
In general, Christmas beers are one of the following base styles:
- Barleywine (sometimes known as Winter Warmer)
- Scotch Ale or Wee Heavy
- Belgian Dark Strong Ale or Quadrupel
Because it’s a holiday beer, alcohol is elevated. Christmas beers tend to be at least 7% ABV and all the way up to 12% ABV. ‘Tis the season, after all.
Color ranges from golden amber to nearly pitch black.
Great Christmas beer should embody the spirit of the season. Holiday spices should be pronounced, alcohol elevated, and bitterness reserved. The best Christmas beers should be easy to drink, but still meant to be consumed slowly. They should have significant body and sweetness without being cloying or too dessert-like.
To get an idea of how broad the style can be, here are the descriptions of a few great Christmas beers from around the world:
- St. Bernardus Christmas Ale: Belgian Quadrupel – 10% ABV – dark brown color – dark fruit, caramel, cinnamon, and clove
- Anchor Christmas Ale: Winter warmer / barleywine – 7% ABV – dark brown color – coffee, dark chocolate, caramel, and cinnamon
- Great Lakes Christmas Ale: Winter warmer / barleywine – 7.5% ABV – deep copper color – honey, ginger, cinnamon, and caramel malt
- Bell’s Christmas Ale: Scotch ale – 7.5% ABV – dark reddish brown color – molasses, honey, and dark malt sweetness
- St Peter’s Christmas Ale: Winter warmer / barleywine – 7% ABV – copper color – dried fruit, ginger, and toffee
Many craft breweries also brew one-off and special batches for the holidays. Anything from sticky, flavored imperial stouts to candy cane sours can be marketed as a holiday or Christmas beer. These can certainly be delicious but fall out of the scope of typical Christmas beer.
Brewing Christmas beer is an annual tradition. Firing up the kettle for a Christmas ale is a clear sign that the holidays are fast approaching.
Christmas beer follows the same principles as any other medium to medium-high strength beer. The main difference is really in the grist design, yeast selection, and use of spices.
When should you brew Christmas beer?
In order for your special beer to be ready by the holidays, make sure to brew it no later than:
- Kegging (Force Carbonating): November 15th
- Bottle or Keg Conditioning: November 1st
Giving enough time for these strong, flavorful beers to condition and mellow will really improve their quality.
Ingredients and Process
Let’s start with the spices. Most Christmas beers use a blend of a few different spices. Think of typical holiday food and drink and you’re on the right track. Classics like gingerbread, fruitcake, mulled wine, and eggnog.
Below is a list of the most common Christmas beer spices. Follow our guide on how to brew with herbs and spices to learn how to get the most out of these flavors.
- Orange peel
Malt selection for Christmas beer can be kept relatively simple. A great-tasting base malt goes a long way. We prefer Maris Otter for most winter beers for its depth of flavor. Specialty malts like amber malt and crystal malt can also be used to add color and sweetness. Dark and roasted grains should be used sparingly (maximum 2-3% of the grain bill) if a darker color is desired.
Because the base for Christmas beer can be a number of styles, we’ve put together a handy reference guide:
|Base style||Barleywine||Scotch Ale||Belgian (Dark) Strong Ale|
|Color (SRM)||8 – 22||15 – 25||10 – 30|
|Original Gravity (OG)||1.080 – 1.120||1.070 – 1.110||1.070 – 1.095|
|Base malt||90-100% Maris Otter||80-85% Maris Otter||75-80% Pilsner malt|
|Specialty grains||5-10% Amber malt|
1-5% Crystal 40L
|10-15% Munich malt|
3% Biscuit Malt
2% Caramel 120L
2% Caramel 75L
1% Chocolate malt
|10-20% Wheat malt|
2-4% Special B
For mashing, we prefer a single infusion rest between 153°F and 157°F for 60 minutes. The higher mash temperature creates unfermentable sugars, boosting mouthfeel and residual sweetness.
Hops play a complementary role to spices in Christmas beer. Herbal and floral hop character tends to work best. Stick to classic noble hops and similar traditional European, British, or American varieties. Fruit-forward hops, like Citra or Galaxy, are not recommended and could clash with the festive flavors.
Bitterness should be balanced, between 35-60 IBU, depending on the original gravity. For stronger beers, a higher bitterness is necessary to balance the malt sweetness.
Yeast plays an extremely important role in Christmas beers. Because these beers have a high original gravity (OG), you’ll need to pitch enough healthy yeast to ensure a complete fermentation.
For a Belgian-style base, an expressive yeast strain should be selected:
For American or British versions, a more neutral yeast should be selected. British yeasts with high ester production can help bring out some fruit character. American strains will let the spices shine through more cleanly and finish dryer.
Voss Kveik is also a great option. The citrus notes can mesh well with spices. On top of that, it can ferment quicker and at hotter temperatures in case you really need to push your beer’s timeline!
Pitch a healthy starter into 64°F, well-oxygenated wort. Ramp the temperature up by 2°F every 2 days until 72°F. Hold at 72°F until gravity is stable, about 7 to 10 more days.
Water chemistry for Christmas beers should be a balanced profile suitable for a deep golden to dark amber/brown color:
|80 ppm||5 ppm||25 ppm||75 ppm||80 ppm||200 ppm|
If your water is high in minerals, consider starting from Reverse Osmosis (RO) or distilled water. For help with water adjustment, see our easy water chemistry guide.
Mash pH should be adjusted to 5.2 using lactic acid or acidulated malt.
Force carbonation is the quickest and easiest way to carbonate your freshly brewed Christmas beer. It’s especially useful if you’ve left your brewing a little late and need to have a keg ready for the holidays!
Bottle conditioning is also a great idea. Stronger and darker beer will age well. Also, bottles make a great gift around the holiday season.
Prime beer and allow bottles to carbonate at around 65-68°F for 2 to 3 weeks. Chill bottles to 32-40°F and allow them to cold-condition for another 2 to 4 weeks.
For both keg and bottled beer, aim for a moderate carbonation level around 2.3 volumes of CO2.
Based on a barleywine, this Christmas ale recipe is full bodied and delicately spiced with classic holiday flavors.
|Final Volume||Original Gravity||Final Gravity||ABV||IBU||SRM|
|14 lb||Maris Otter||37||2.6||91.80%|
|1.0 lb||Amber Malt||32||20.8||6.60%|
|4 oz||Crystal 40L||34||40||1.60%|
|15 lb 4 oz|
For extract brewers, use 10 pounds of light dry malt extract (DME) and steep half a pound of Crystal 40L.
|1 oz||Perle||8%||Boil||60 min||27|
|1 oz||Perle||8%||Boil||30 min||21|
|½ oz||Cinnamon Sticks||Flameout||15 min|
|½ oz||Whole Clove||Flameout||15 min|
|½ oz||Ground Ginger||Flameout||15 min|
|½ oz||Cardamom Pods (lightly crushed)||Flameout||15 min|
2 packs of Fermentis SafAle US-05 (or a healthy starter)
- Mash with a single infusion rest at 155°F for 60 minutes. Sparge the full volume into the kettle.
- Bring the wort to a boil.
- Add 60 minute hop addition.
- Add 30 minute hop addition.
- Turn off heat.
- Add spices and let steep for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Quickly chill wort to 60°F.
- Transfer cooled wort to a sanitized fermenter, leaving behind trub, hop matter, and spices.
- Oxygenate wort and pitch the yeast.
- Start fermentation at 64°F. Ramp the temperature up by 2°F every 2 days until 72°F. Hold at 72°F until gravity is stable, about 7 to 10 more days.
- Package beer and carbonate to 2.3 volumes of CO2
- If kegging, allow beer to condition for 1 to 2 weeks in the keg.
- If bottling, after 2 weeks of bottle refermentation. Condition carbonated bottles at 32-40°F for 2 to 3 weeks.
Beer and the holidays… great companions. Give yourself, your family, and your friends the greatest gift this holiday season: homebrewed Christmas beer!
Following good brewing practices and using a bit of creativity, you can create a tasty holiday beer that will keep you warm all winter.
Here are the answers to a few additional questions you may have about Christmas Beers.
What’s the difference between Winter Warmer and Christmas ale?
Winter warmer is a strong British ale meant to be consumed during the winter months. They’re usually between 6.5% to 8% ABV, dark amber or dark brown, and may or may not be spiced. Christmas beer, on the other hand, is almost always spiced and can have a wider range of ABV, flavor, and color.
How do you add spices to Christmas beer?
Brewing with spices is both an art and a science. It takes experimentation, trial and error, and a lot of creativity. For Christmas beers, most of the spices you’ll use (cinnamon, cardamom, etc.) come through great when added at flameout. They can be left to steep for 15-30 minutes to extract maximum flavor.
Refer to our complete guide on brewing with spices to learn more.