Christmas Beer

Christmas time is here again.  A time for indulgence.  A time for tasting seasonal trea...

13.05 12 Dec 2014

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Christmas Beer

Christmas Beer


13.05 12 Dec 2014

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Christmas time is here again.  A time for indulgence.  A time for tasting seasonal treats not enjoyed at any other time of the year.  Christmas was one of the first times when breweries would brew a special ‘seasonal’ beer.

To-day, on the show, we have a superb seasonal beer from the Saltaire Brewery in Yorkshire – White Christmas.  In a twist for Christmas, we will be tasting this beer in two different ways – first, served as a normal beer would be served, and then we will be tasting White Christmas as part of a mulled beer recipe.

Christmas Beers –


Christmas beers are a perennial treat – as the winter season kicks in, the prospect of Christmas beers is a welcome anticipation.  Christmas beers generally take two forms.  ‘Winter warmers’ are generally higher a.b.v. beers, often flavoured with warming spices (gruit or gruut), and which may or may not have Christmas-themed names (having a large picture of Santa on the label tends to mean that the beer is primarily drunk up to and including December 25th – after this date, most people feel that the remaining bottles are probably most deservedly drunk by the man himself after he rests after the busiest night of the year).  The higher a.b.v. in winter warmers also delivers a warming effect – alcohol provides a warming sensation when the alcohol content of a beer is above average – 7% to 10% and above.  The second type of Christmas beer is a seasonal speciality with the recipe designed around flavours associated with Christmas.  The most popular of the Chimay beers – Chimay Blue (or Grande Reserve) originally started its life as a Christmas seasonal (Chimay Blue has a dark fruit/Christmas pudding and port wine character).  Only later was it made available all year round.

While many are so used to the spice and bitter flavour in beers coming primarily from hops, it would be understandable to assume that using spice in beer is a more recent tradition.  In fact, the reverse is the case.  Beers brewed over five hundred years ago were more commonly flavoured with herbs and spices – hops were not used.  Before the spice trade started, brewers would make do with locally available ingredients – heather, for example, was often used in Scottish ales.  As more exotic spices became available, brewers experimented with different ingredients.

In times past, the distinction between ‘ales’ and ‘lagers’ did not exist per se – there was not a sufficient understanding of how yeast works to be able to divide beers brewed with ale and lager yeasts into two different categories.  At that time, the distinction was between ‘ale’ (beer brewed with gruit or gruut – a blend of spices) and ‘beer’ – which was brewed with hops.  In England, there was an initial distrust of hops – Henry VIII declared that the ‘pernicious weed’ (hops) not be used in brewing ales destined for the monarchs.  It was only after there was a better understanding of the preservative effect of hops in beer that hops supplanted spices as the ingredient of choice for brewers, and the legislature gave in.

Spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger all have a warming character, and are particularly appealing as the weather grows colder. Not surprising, therefore, that they can be prevalent in beers brewed for the winter months.  Some spices have a ‘hot’ taste – chillis, black pepper.  While their flavours can be over-powering, in limited quantities they can be a particularly pleasant addition to a beer’s recipe.  Certain hops – such as the noble variety Saaz, from the Czech republic – have a spicy character when used in beer.  Not limited to Christmas beers (Saaz is a popular hop in German and Czech pilsners), these hops can further complement the spicy character that a brewer might want to achieve in a beer designed for the colder months.  Certain fruit flavours – curacao (orange peel) and red fruit flavours such as cherry and cranberry – also find their way into winter and Christmas beers.  There is nothing nicer to accompany your Christmas turkey and stuffing than a delicious fruit beer such as Boscoli from Het Anker – the red fruit character acts as a liquid cranberry sauce.  Yum!

White Christmas –

Beer Style                           -  Golden Ale flavoured with orange and spice

Alcohol by Volume          -  5.8% a.b.v.

Brewed by                          -  Saltaire Brewery

Brewed in                           -  Yorkshire, England


Saltaire Brewery in Yorkshire is a brewery that brews both exceptional year-round beers, and superb creative and unusual one-off and seasonal beers.  This year, they have brewed ‘White Christmas’ – a delicious, and slightly more delicate take on the Christmas seasonal beer.

White Christmas is probably best described as a cross between a witbier and a golden ale.  While there is a small amount of wheat (in the form of 5% terrified wheat) used in the grist of this beer, there is not enough to give this beer the characteristic cloudy white appearance associated with wit bier.  However, the use of orange peel and coriander – two ingredients regularly associated with witbier – does call to mind the character of a Belgian wit.

White Christmas presents as a burnished gold ale with a clean, tight, full white head.  The mouthfeel on the palate is richer and fuller than one might get from a wheat beer – not surprising with the use of a blend of pale malt, Vienna malt, pale rye and oats along with the wheat in the grist.  However, one would have to say that it is a particularly light Christmas or winter beer – it does have a deliciously luscious texture, but does not have the richness and chewiness of high body, high strength winter warmers.  At 5.8% a.b.v., this beer is above average, but not pushing into the realms of alcohol warming associated with beers in the higher single digit or double digit a.b.v. range.

Saltaire has used a different, creative and very effective approach to deliver a Christmas treat.  The Vienna malt provides a honey sweetness on the palate, and this is balanced by a subtle chewiness and a little edge from the rye and oats – the perfect foundation for the fruity treat to come.  Saaz hops provide its own distinctive and noble brand of spice character – again a very pleasant counterpoint.  However, it is the orange fruitiness and subtle spice and citrus character from the orange peel and coriander which provides this beer with its distinctive character.  This orange character is further supplemented by the use of orange juice in the recipe.  Sweet orange – mandarin orange – is balanced against spice and bitter orange (curacao) and the velvety texture from the combination of honey and orange juice.

The result is a lightly fruity and deliciously refreshing beer that borders on a beer mimosa.  There is enough texture and structure in the beer to give it substance as  a Christmas beer, but the fruity character is allowed to come through very pleasantly on top of the honey malt base and spicy hop character.  While Christmas beer might lead one to expect rich and full dark fruit flavours, White Christmas delivers light, crisp and refreshing fruit flavours with enough spice and sweet to be pleasant, but not so much with the result that this beer is incredibly moreish.

I expect that this beer would provide a perfect counterpoint to apricot stuffing on Christmas Day – I expect that I’ll just have to test that out to see if I’m right!

Mulled Beer –

Mulled beer was a very common source of refreshment in the 1700’s and 1800’s.  While many people are quite familiar with mulled wine, and some familiar with mulled cider, the idea of mulled beer seems to have slid out of social consciousness – a pity, because well made mulled beer can be delicious.

First of all – what is it.  Mulling involves heating an alcoholic drink, and infusing it with the flavours of spices and fruit.  In cold weather, this can provide a deliciously warming drink – the warmth of the temperature combining with warming spices to heat the cockles of the beer drinkers heart.  When it comes to mulled beer, there are some caveats, and expectations need to be set in the right place.  However, once one understands what to expect, mulling the right beer with the right blend of spices can be truly delicious. 

To start with, the caveats.

Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water.  While beer is primarily water, with typically less than 10% alcohol, the alcohol is a very important element of the beer.  As one prepares mulled beer, it is imperative that the liquid in the saucepan is kept below simmering point.  If the liquid is allowed to simmer for an extended period, or worse again, boil, the lower boiling point of alcohol (78⁰C) will mean that the alcohol will be quickly boiled off.  Note that the liquid doesn’t have to be at 78⁰C to start losing alcohol – all that is needed is for the alcohol within the liquid to pick up enough energy to escape the liquid.  Likewise, boiling off liquid will concentrate the flavours in the mulled beer, and can leave an excessively concentrated character in the beer.  Hop bitterness can be accentuated excessively, and the balance of spices from the spice additions can go off kilter.


When choosing the beer, it is best to go for beers with lower hop bitterness to them.  Hop bitterness can become accentuated and biting if a beer is heated and reduced.  Beers with a naturally sweet base can lend themselves very well to mulled beers.  Beers with a naturally fruity character complement the fruit added to the mulled beer.  However, this fruit character is best when it is achieved from fermentation.  In a similar vein, beers with their own spice character – for example, Steenbrugge abbey ales, which are brewed with a preponderance of gruut – would be particularly suited, as would beers with a naturally spicy character – Belgian ales such as Gouden Carolus Christmas or Gouden Carolus Classic.  When working with mulling beers, it is important to keep an eye on the alcohol content.  While one would expect that stronger beers would be more suited to mulling, if you are using a stronger beer be careful with the addition of any spirits to the mulled beer.  Adding too much spirits can cause the mulled beer to be over-vinous (too much of a harsh alcohol character).  Finally, the balance of spices used might need to be modified depending on the beer used.  As always with any recipe it is the balance of ingredients that makes the recipe work.  If the beer is changed, this changes the balance, and the amount and type of spices might need to be altered to compensate.  Tasting will give a good idea, and experimentation will mean that practice makes perfect.

The final caveat comes to serving.  Ideally, mulled beer should be pleasantly hot.  It is best served in a glass or mug with a handle – so that the drinker does not burn their fingers while holding the glass.  Also, it is best to warm the jug and glasses in which the mulled beer is going to be served with hot or boiling water before serving.  After working hard to ensure that the mulled beer does not get too hot in the saucepan, it is equally important to ensure that a cold jug and/or glass does not sap away all of the pleasant warmth from the mulled beer.

In terms of what to expect from mulled beer, obviously it is going to be a hot drink.  Coming with this is that it is virtually impossible for the beer to retain any carbonation.  Mulled beer will not have the buzz of carbonation that one will associate with regular chilled beers.  The essence of mulled beer is the warmth, fruit and spices from the recipe.  If you are looking for a crisp, clean tasting beer with a tongue tingling buzz of carbonation, stick with beer at its normal temperature!

Recipe for Mulled Beer –

This recipe is based on the Saltaire beer White Christmas.  The recipe uses 1 litre (2x500ml bottles) of beer, and would serve two to five people with a single serve of beer (200ml to 500ml per person).  Other beers can be used – see the notes above for suggestions and consequences of using different types of beer.  Some simple experimentation will give quick results on variations to the recipe.


Ingredients –

2 x 500ml bottles of White Christmas (at room temperature)

8 slices of fresh ginger

2 whole cinnamon sticks

6 whole cloves

1½ teaspoons coriander seeds

1 teaspoon of whole black pepper

1 teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg

Peel of one orange

2 tablespoons of honey

2 tablespoons (30ml) of Spiced Rum

Equipment –

Medium/Large sized saucepan

Pestle and Mortar



2 to 5 mugs or Irish Coffee Glasses to serve


Directions –

  1. Lightly crush the cloves and coriander seeds with a pestle and mortar so that the freshness of flavour of these ingredients is at its best.  If you don’t have access to a pestle and mortar, then ground cloves and coriander seeds will do.
  2. Place the crushed cloves and coriander in the saucepan.
  3. Break the cinnamon sticks in half.  Place in the saucepan.
  4. Add the 8 x slices of fresh ginger, the peel of one whole orange, 1 x teaspoons of whole black pepper and 1 x teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg into the saucepan.
  5. Add two x 500ml bottles of Saltaire White Christmas to the saucepan.

Note - It is easier to make this recipe with beer at room temperature.  However, if the beer has been chilled in the fridge, allow an extra five minutes warming in the saucepan in the times below to bring the beer up to the required temperature.

  1. Place the saucepan containing the beer and spices on a low to medium heat, and warm for 30 minutes.

Note – the key issue when making mulled beer is to keep the beer below simmering point, and definitely do not allow the beer to boil.  If the beer is at simmering point or above in the saucepan, the alcohol in the beer will be boiled off, and there is a danger that the residual sugars in the beer and the spices will cook in a way that will be detrimental to the flavour of the mulled beer.  The beer should be kept at a warm temperature to allow the spices to infuse into the beer while in the saucepan.

  1. At the end of 30 minutes, add 2 x tablespoons of honey.  Stir and taste for sweetness and add more if desired.
  2. Warm the jug and the serving glasses / mugs with boiling water.  If the jug and serving glasses are not heated before pouring in the mulled beer, there is a danger that the beer will quickly become lukewarm in the jug and or serving glasses.
  3. Remove the saucepan from the heat.  Strain the mulled beer into a jug.
  4. Add 2 x tablespoons (30ml) of spiced rum to the jug.  Stir to mix.
  5. The mulled beer should be served in a warmed mug or handled Irish Coffee glass (so that you don’t burn your hand when drinking).  Pour the mulled beer into the glass for serving.

Saltaire White Christmas Available in –

Jus De Vine Off-Licence, Portmarnock, Dublin

The Hole in the Wall, Blackhorse Ave, Dublin 3

Carry Out, Tyrellstown, Dublin

Whelans Wexford St, Dublin 2

Fox's Bar, Navan, County Meath

Kelly's Wine Vault, Vernon Avenue, Clontarf, Dublin 3

Martins Off-licence, Fairview, Dublin 3

McCabe's Off-Licence, Blackrock, County Dublin

The Winewell, Dunboyne, County Meath

Callans Off-licence, Dundalk, County Louth

Delaneys, Aungier St, Dublin

Round 'O' Off-Licence, Navan, County Meath

The Wine Shop, Perrystown, Dublin

Holland's, Bray, County Wicklow

Probus Wines, Fenian Street, Dublin 2.

The Malthouse, Trim, County Meath

Chill Inn, Ongar, Dublin

Spar Rathoath

Acheson's Off-Licence, Crumlin, Dublin 12

McHughs O/L,  Malahide Road, County Dublin

Next Door, Wicklow Town, County Wicklow

Dicey Reilly's Bar and Off-Licence, Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal

Bradley's Supermarket, North Main Street, Cork City

1601 Off-Licence, Kinsale, County Cork

Desmond's Next Door, Fr. Russell Road, Raheen, Limerick

Number 21 Off-Licence, Coburg Street, Cork

Myles Creek Next Door Off-Licence, Kilkee, Co. Clare

Number 21 Off-Licence, Ballinacurra, Midleton, Cork

Matson's Inns, Douglas, Cork

Eldon's Off-Licence, Clonmel, County Tipperary

Next Door @ Shannon Knights, Skycourt, Shannon, Co Clare

Number 21 Off-Licence, Ballincollig, County Cork

Number 21 Off-Licence, Blarney, County Cork

Dwan's Spar, Ballycullen, Dublin 16

Next Door Off-Licence, Athy, County Kildare

Foleys Off-licence, Sligo

Baggot Street Wines, Baggot Street, 17 Upper Baggot Street, Dublin

Centra, Enfield, County Meath

Blackrock Cellars Off-Licence, Blackrock, County Dublin

The Wine Centre, Kilkenny

Donnybrook Fair, Donnybrook, Dublin 4

Kavanagh's Off-Licence, Dorset Street, Dublin 1

The Old Forge, Wicklow Town, Co. Wicklow

Desmond's Next Door, Sundrive Road, Kimmage, Dublin

Tommy O'Keeffe's, Kilcock, County Kildare

Sweeney's Wine Merchants, Phibsboro, Dublin

Deveneys, Rathmines, Dublin

The Comet, Santry, Dublin

Castle Street Off-Licence, Tralee, Co. Kerry

The Ice Box Off-Licence, Castle Mill Shopping Centre, Balbriggan, County Dublin

Next Door South Circular Road Dublin 8

Cork's Off-Licence, Terenure Road North, Dublin 6W

Matson's Off-Licences, Douglas and Bandon, Cork


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