December 07, 2021

Christmas Ale Style with SafAle™ T-58

Christmas Ale Style with SafAle T-58™

Bring Spicy Notes to Your Beer with SafAle™ T-58

All beers have their own characteristics -  hop forward, high alcohol, dry, sweet, etc. To reach your intended beer characteristics, you have a large palette of ingredients at your disposal: malts, yeasts, and hops, but also many others such as fruits, specific sugars, flowers, etc. The different combinations of ingredients are almost infinite, which is why it’s important for brewers to define the characteristics wanted in the beer in order to select the right tool/ingredients to reach them. During this winter period, one characteristic that’s often focused on is the spiciness that lends itself to the beer style now known as the Christmas Ale.

The History Behind Christmas Ales

Like many fun stories of fermented drinks, we start with the Vikings. During the 13th century, a law in Norway imposed brewing beer to celebrate Yule - the Winter solstice, aka the shortest day of the year. Skipping to the 17th and 18th centuries in Belgium and France, most brewers worked with fresh ingredients coming directly from the fields. But as November announced the end of the harvest season, brewers worked with what they had -  including the use of a huge quantity of malt which resulted in a higher initial density and a higher percent of alcohol.

So what about the spice?! As the 17th and 18th century Christmas Ales were more of a “leftover beer” brewed with what was in stock, they were not particularly the best recipe. To hide off flavors, brewers came up with the idea of using readily available spices including nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves.

The Christmas Ale Today

“The leftover beer” of the past is far from the Christmas Ale we produce today.  Some characteristics of the beer style (such as spiciness) have remained through the centuries - though no longer to hide off-flavors, but to bring a well established seasonal aroma to winter beers.

The best way to describe today’s Christmas Ale is to take the definition of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). Under their beer category “30C Winter Seasonal Beers”, this style is defined as: “Winter Seasonal Beers are beers that suggest cold weather and the Christmas holiday season, and may include holiday spices, specialty sugars, and other products that are reminiscent of mulling spices or Christmas holiday desserts.” There is no rule for specific original or final gravity, IBU, or SRM - the creative interpretations for your own Christmas Ale are essentially limitless.

Bring the Spicy Character to Your Beer

The spicy, wintry character remains essential in terms of flavors and aromas by keeping in mind the overall balance and not overwhelm the base beer. One method to bring a spicy character to a  beer is to add spice in your wort, but how and when?

The timing of spice addition is important, the sooner you add your spice(s),  the more chance you have to impact your final beer. But some spices turn bitter when exposed to too much heat - it’s a delicate balance of timing. Adding it during the fermentation could be an option but you have to investigate the possible interactions between yeast and the spice you use. The last and most common option is to add your spice in secondary. This option allows you more control and flexibility in your process, since you can adjust the quantity of spices if the aromas are not strong enough  after a few days.

The method of addition is as well important as the timing. By crushing your spice, you expand the surface area of contact - more interaction between your spice and the wort.  Another method to add your spice is to prepare a tincture. Simply add your whole spice to a minimum volume of neutral alcohol (vodka for example) for a week to create a “spice extract”, then add this extract to your wort without the solid part of the spice. By doing that, you drastically reduce the risk of possible contamination, especially if you add it at cold temperature.

The spice addition is very important to bring that characteristic to your beer, but there is another method which can complement or even sometimes replace this addition: the choice of yeast.

Yeast and Spicy Notes

One yeast strain that can bring the right seasonal characteristics to this style of beer is the SafAle™ T-58 by Fermentis. The compound found in this strain contributes to spicy, clove-like flavors which, depending on the concentration, may produce a spicy and complex character in some Belgian ales and wheat-based beers.

The choice of a yeast strain like the SafAle™ T-58 is important to express phenol notes but it’s not the only factor. It also depends on your malt choice and the quantity you’ll put in your wort. Depending on this, you’ll bring a different quantity of ferulic acid, the mandatory precursor to generate the compound that causes spicy notes. Your mashing regime will also have its importance as  you’ll extract more ferulic acid at 113°. Which leads to the last aspect in promoting phenol notes - your fermentation temperature. The SafAle™ T-58, for example, is best fermented between 64-72°F. A higher fermentation temperature would promote more esters (fruity notes) with the risk to hide the phenolic notes.

The SafAle™ T-58 is an interesting yeast strain to play with when you’re looking for spiciness and phenols in your beer. During a seemingly endless winter season, the Christmas Ale seems to be the perfect style to experiment with. In the coming weeks, we have seen through this article the richness and the diversity of this beer style. The spicy character could also be interesting in many other styles - Weizen, Saison, Witbiers, Tripel, etc. As always with homebrewing, go experiment and create your own perfect Christmas Ale style beer! Maybe it’ll be the recipe you share with family for years to come.

Read More About Yeast:

Making A Yeast Starter - Learn how to make a yeast starter.
Yeast Nutrients and Yeast Energizers - Keep your yeast healthy. 
Dry Yeast and Liquid Yeast - Check out the pros and cons. 

Hydrating Dry Yeast -  Is pitching dry yeast directly the best method?
5 Easy Tricks For Boosting Yeast Health