Brew Day!… “Christmas Ale 2017”

What does one brew as the autumn equinox passes?

It’s a question that answers itself. As the nights draw in, as a chill claws at the window frame, and as coats and scarves are liberated from mothballs, the thoughts of every brewer turn to Christmas ale. And thoughts must quickly be transmuted into action: if an ale is to be festive the alcohol must be ramped up a little, which means a few months of cellar time is required to smooth off the rougher phenolic edges.

It was felicitous, therefore, that a work colleague asked to commission a Christmas beer from me just as I was heading off on my summer holiday. I accepted the challenge and promised to get to work shortly after my return.

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The brief was “festive but light, high ABV”. Short, then, but with that “light” curve ball thrown in, a difficult brief to triangulate successfully.

I took “festive” to imply “high ABV”, as well as something on the dark-and-malty side without being a stout. A Maris Otter base would be built to support a good dose of Crystal 100 for aromatic sweetness. A pinch of black Roasted Barley would bronze the colour.

A touch of spice is an absolute must. Inspired by the fabulous Brouwerij Dilewyns’ Vicaris Generaal, and Het Anker’s great classic Gouden Carolus Christmas, I was keen to try liquorice root. Cinnamon and ginger were obvious complements.

Hops and Spices for Christmas Ale 2017

Handle with Care

Spice flavours in beer will always have a multiple of the intensity that you expect. Star anise is perhaps the deadliest, but virtually any spice must be added with care, and a judicious attentiveness to both its amount and its length of time in the boil. Deciding on a recipe for this brew was not helped by the fact that other brewers recommend wildly different proportions for liquorice root, and report adding it successfully to their boils for 60 minutes, five minutes and seemingly all points in between.

I erred on the side of caution: one stick, weighing 30 grams, for just 10 minutes. With any spice, I would sooner risk that it not cross the taste threshold than have it overwhelm the beer.

The real challenge, however, is to achieve both “high ABV” and “lightness”. Aiming for 7-8% rather than 9-11% helps, of course, but even at this level, chaptalisation would be the most obvious way to hit the number without creating a heavy-bodied beer. But would three months be time enough for a chaptalised beer to mature into something other than a solvent-drenched phenolic soup?

Again, I erred on the side of caution. A small amount of lightly-boiled sugar went in, more for background rum-and-caramel flavour than for alcohol. I used a relatively “clean” British yeast strain, rather than a Belgian, to ensure that the spice work would be done by the spices themselves, and the late introduction of some earthy, minty Perle hops, rather than any over-hot phenols. Should I have added the wheat, which would help sustain a luxurious, fluffy foam but also fatten the body a little? The jury is out.

Let’s hope that half an hour in the refrigerator will lend the result the illusion of “lightness”! In any case, it’s for Christmas. If you’re not going to indulge at Christmas, when are you going to indulge?

“Christmas Ale 2017” (September 2017)                              

In the mash:

  • 5.0kg of Maris Otter malt
  • 700g of Crystal 100 malt
  • 500g of Wheat
  • 50g of Roasted Barley
  • 90 minutes of rest

In the boil:

  • 25g of Northern Brewer hops for 60 mins
  • 250g of unrefined cane sugar for 60 mins
  • 50g of muscovado sugar for 60 mins
  • 15g of fresh ginger for 10 mins
  • 10g of cinnamon sticks for 10 mins
  • 30g of liquorice root for 10 mins
  • 25g of Perle hops for 5 mins
  • 60 minute boil

Fermented with Wyeast Laboratories 1318 “London Ale III”

Starting Gravity: 1.070 / 17° Plato

Finishing Gravity: 1.014

ABV: 7.4%

The Mash for Christmas Ale 2017

A Maris Otter base, a good dose of Crystal 100 and a pinch of Roasted Barley

This is my first commissioned beer. I anticipate that the entire batch will go to the work colleague who requested it. A nominal sum of actual hard cash will change hands.

I once brewed a batch for a friend’s workplace Christmas fair, but that was selling for charity and it felt quite different. I got to choose the styles and recipes myself, and the punters mostly paid £2 each for a single bottle and got to try a bit first.

In contrast, for all the little liberties described above, this is essentially a beer brewed to a brief. And it has to be decent.

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When people learn that you are a homebrewer they tend to ask whether you’ve considered brewing commercially. This is probably because they see evidence of so many microbreweries out and about. Part of me likes to think it’s because they’ve tasted my beer and think it’s all right.

Getting started in commercial brewing must require a good few tens of thousands of pounds of capital, not to mention a fair amount of red tape. And then there is the risk. It is very tempting to call the top of the craft-beer market – in London, at least. “The worst of all hobbies are those that people think they can get money at,” as Mr Deane puts it in The Mill on the Floss. “They shoot their money down like corn out of a sack then.”

On the other hand, compared with most other industries brewing does seem to have relatively low barriers to entry. There is clearly money to be made and fun to be had, and, as for the risk, we all know what John Maynard Keynes had to say about the capacity of markets to stay irrational.

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A wise man once wrote about his search for the perfect balance between low- and high-tech, craft and industry, in his brewing. “To be a homebrewer is to fail,” he concluded. “A journey can be more sublime than a destination, heroism more noble than success. Satisfaction and fun are not the same thing.”

That attitude is never going to fly, commercially-speaking.

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In 1978 Philip Brickman, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman set out to test the so-called “adaptation-level”, “set-point” or “hedonic treadmill” theory of happiness, and published their findings in a paper for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The paper was titled “Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?”, and that title tells you most of what you need to know about the experiment. The researchers interviewed 22 major lottery winners, 22 controls and 29 paralyzed accident victims about the level of pleasure they gained from “mundane events” such as chatting with friends, hearing a joke, or eating a meal.

There was no mention of drinking beer, which is a worrying omission but probably not one that affects the most significant finding – that all three groups reported similar levels of happiness. If anything, the accident victims seemed marginally happier.

The researchers concluded that the “hedonic treadmill” was valid, that we all have a basic “set point” of happiness: “If all things are judged by the extent to which they depart from a baseline of past experience, gradually even the most positive events will cease to have impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged.”

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Many people appear to believe that, if only they could take the hobby that gives them happiness and make it their work or career, they would naturally live a happier life. The evidence from the lottery winners suggests that this is a dangerous fallacy. Likewise, parents report happiness from the anticipation of rearing children, and in old age they report feeling happy that they chose to raise children – but they tend to report higher levels of unhappiness while they are actually living with the annoying little sprogs and their unceasing demands.

It appears that only a handful of major incidents have the power to change our pre-set, resting level of happiness with any permanence – things like getting married or divorced, going through a long period of unemployment, losing a child, finding God. It also seems that quite a substantial investment in unhappiness is required to get a return of deeper, more meaningful happiness from existence.

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I go for the “variety-is-the-spice-of-life” theory.

There are certain aspects of one’s life, usually the biggest and most productive parts of it, that act as a kind of sump for the stress and anxiety that we have to feel as human beings. Typically, this part of our life is what we call “work”. Think of it as the “meat” of life.

It is the importance and productiveness of that work we do that causes it to feel stressful and anxiety-inducing. It is also, just occasionally, what makes it rewarding and even exhilarating. But most of the time it is stressful, and it is the other aspects of our lives – home, hobbies, friends, volunteering – that help us endure. These other aspects are the spices of life that leaven the meat.

Remember that we must be condemned to a set level of stress and anxiety if we accept that we have a set level of happiness. Taking away the work that “causes” your stress will not, therefore, remove that stress. Why? Because the work is not the “cause” of the stress at all, but the sump for it. Or rather, stress is the fuel that cooks the meat of work, and makes it edible and energy-giving.

Spices bring variety – but only as long as the meat is cooked and eaten. Your mind should be in your work, but probably not your heart. You should not try to live on a diet of spice alone.

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Then again, perhaps I am a more cautious brewer than I like to imagine.

Do I really grasp the opportunities that my uncommercial freedom-to-fail affords? Do I reach for sophisticated justifications for what is really a corrosive aversion to risk? Do I make a category error when I translate what I know about spice in beer to what I think I know about spice in life?

Would you like to buy some homebrew?

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