IT WOULDN'T be Christmas without spiced beer.
Yes, I know, Christmas beer is a tradition, not a style, so the holidays are celebrated with many types of ales and lagers, many of them unspiced. Belgian Christmas beers are typically malty, abbey-style ales; the classic Scandinavian Christmas beer is a bock; and one of the American originals, Sierra Nevada Celebration, is a hop monster.
But for many beer drinkers and brewers, the Christmas beer prototype glistens with festive spices: the vanilla of Anderson Valley Winter Solstice, the cinnamon of Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig, the sweet gale of Rude Elf's Reserve, and the mystery ingredients in the granddaddy of the season, Anchor Our Special Ale.
Fred Karm, owner and brewmaster at Hoppin' Frog Brewery in Akron, Ohio, is one of those believers in spice.
"I want to give my friends and family everything they'd expect from a Christmas beer," said Karm. "Holiday beers without spices aren't saying Christmas to me. I want those Christmas spices. Christmas beer should have cinnamon and ginger and nutmeg."
Karm's Frosted Frog - bottled for the first time this season - is an imperial nut brown ale flavored with all three. Rich, savory but not overbearing, it's particularly good with hearty dishes. The bottle I drained the other night paired beautifully with homemade butternut squash soup.
Now, I'm well aware that many beer drinkers turn their noses up at spiced beers. Some back off when - expecting the familiar aroma of hops - they're greeted with a whiff of grandma's kitchen. Others say spiced beer is just ain't "real" beer.
To those with a sensitive schnozz, you have my sympathies. To grumpy traditionalists: Wise up - spiced beer actually predates hopped beer.
It wasn't till about the 16th century that Europe settled on hops as the primary bittering ingredient in beer. Before that, brewers used a wide variety of herbs, spices and other plant life to balance the sweetness of the sugary malt. Indeed, while we often think of cinnamon and nutmeg as sweet, that's mainly because those spices are added to sugar-laden cookies and desserts. In beer, they add a touch of much-needed bitterness.
Sly Fox Christmas Ale, for example, starts out as a lightly hopped red ale. "If you taste it without the spices," said Sly Fox brewer Brian O'Reilly, "it's almost too sweet."
O'Reilly makes a "tea" that's heavily flavored with freshly ground cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and clove, plus fresh ginger. "The whole brewery just smells like spices for the day," he said.
Instead of boiling the spices in the early stage of brewing, O'Reilly adds the spiced tea to the already filtered batch, a step he believes enhances its aroma.
He finds that the ginger, especially, dries out the sweetness to make the ale more drinkable.
Karm, who has been experimenting with spiced beer recipes since he began brewing as a hobby in 1994, said, "The spices accomplish the same thing that brewers discovered centuries ago. They add a balancing bitterness to the malt sweetness."
His Frosted Frog, for example, is so lightly hopped, it's rated at just 12 international bittering units (IBUs). "That's crazy," Karm said. "It's about half of what you'd normally have in a nut brown ale."
But the cinnamon adds a "hot bite," he said, and the nutmeg provides a bit of sourness.
Together, they produce a flavor that reminds you that Santa's coming to town.
Several new releases packed with spices showed up in Philly this season, including:
Winter Wunder from Philadelphia Brewing (draft only). Besides cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and allspice, it's flavored with plums and dates for a rich mouthful.
Ommegang Adoration (New York). A complex, malty and especially strong (10 percent alcohol) Belgian-style ale with coriander, mace, cardamom, grains of paradise and sweet orange peel.
Two Turtle Doves from The Bruery (California). Another strong Belgian-style ale, flavored with cocoa nibs and toasted pecans to remind you of those holiday turtle candies.
Thomas Hooker Nor'Easter (Connecticut). A malty lager with mild spices.
Ale Mary from RCH in West Hewish, England. An English bitter spiced with ginger, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg and, oddly, pimento. Though brewed as a Christmas treat, its label is a tribute not to Christ's mother but to the queen, aka "Bloody Mary."
Still not sure about this whole spice thing? Don't pour that Christmas beer down the drain.
If it contains more than 7 percent alcohol, it's perfectly suited for aging. Store it in a cool, dark spot till next winter. Crack it open and you'll find the spices have mellowed considerably.