Hippo Manchester
December 15, 2005

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Beer: Have a holly, jolly beer

The season is the reason for spices and herbs

By Mike Roy   beergasms@aol.com

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, at least that’s what the radio keeps telling me. Although “wonderful” is a pretty subjective  term, I won’t argue that this is a very interesting time of the year, especially for beer.

In the realm of food it’s extremely common to see more exotic interpretations when it comes to cakes, cookies and even drinks like coffee, tea, cider and eggnog. I don’t have any cold hard facts to back it up but I would think that the sale of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger go through the roof this month as it seems every where I look I see them.

Even in the world of beer we see a dramatic change as brewers spice up holiday beers with various infusions of cinnamon, ginger, anise seed and even clove.

“Sugar and spice and everything nice sounds great for little girls and cookies, but not beer,” a man once told me. “Beer shouldn’t have spices and crap, it should be traditional, using hops.”

Comments like these make me laugh because, little do most people know, spices and herbs in beers are traditional. They’ve been used in brewing long before there were hops.

These beers without hops were known as “Gruit” beers and are still brewed today by some of the world’s more experimental brewers. So if these spices, herbs and roots were acceptable then, why not now? Personally I have no problem with it and the surge of winter/holiday spiced beers on the market can attest that the consumer doesn’t either. These modern-day spice beers use hops as well, but they are usually subdued to allow the character of herbs and spices to come through more. 

What could be better during the holidays than to enjoy your family time with holiday spiced ale? Around this time of year, I find they put me in the holiday mood. My all-time favorite has to be Anchor Our Special Ale, which is considered by many to be the grandfather of American holiday ales, as it’s been brewed for more than 30 years.

Here in New Hampshire you can find quite a few winter spiced beers including the most accessible ones like Harpoon Winter Warmer and Sam Adams Old Fezziwig. Closer to the New Hampshire homefront, two versions also come to mind — Martha’s Exchange Maji Winter Warmer and Portsmouth Brewing Company’s Blitzen Ale, which are both usually available around this time. So forgo eating those cookies and pick up some “liquid fruit cake.” Sit back and take pleasure in the snow, as these spiced beers generally don’t have the same feel while drinking them poolside in July.

As for you topic watchers I’ll be happy to inform you that thanks to some great e-mails I’ll be touching on some interesting subjects in the future, including pairing beer with ethnic cuisine like Thai & Mexican, beer etiquette, beer nutrition, home brewing and, yes, even beer for nurturing a good relationship. That said, if you have something you’d like me to touch on feel free to e-mail me and let me know. So from the beer cellar I wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or whatever you happen to be celebrating currently, even if it’s as simple as the beer you’re enjoying.

— Mike Roy is the brewer at Milly’s Tavern in Manchester. The Beer Cellar runs every other week, exclusively in the Hippo.