Schlafly Special Release Christmas Ale is currently out in the market, so I thought it would be fun to see if I couldn’t find out a bit more information about this always popular winter release for you good people. To do that, I went straight to the source and talked with the gentlemen responsible for creating the recipe for our Christmas Ale; James “Otto” Ottolini. Otto has been with Schlafly since 1992 (wow!) and he currently oversees all brewing operations at our Bottleworks facility.
Otto, can you tell me the history of Schlafly’s Christmas Ale? When did we first start brewing it and where did the recipe come from?
Otto: We first brewed Christmas Ale in 2006. We created a special release series to our line-up of beers which included Pumpkin Ale, Christmas Ale, Irish Extra Stout and Export IPA. It now includes American IPA as well. I made up the recipe based upon flavors that were reminiscent of a mulled wine. The beer was amber, sweet and spiced with orange, clove and cardamom pods. It was also dry hopped with Chinook hops since this hop varietal imparts a piney character to beers dry hopped with it.
Is this the same or similar recipe to “Ebenezer’s Christmas Ale” brewed way back when we first opened?
Otto: This is a different beer than the Ebenezer’s Christmas Ale. That beer became our ESB because that was the style which Ebenezer’s was brewed to be. Think “bitter”! Who is more extra special bitter than some old fart who needs spirits, phantoms and poltergeists to shake him into living in the moment, opening his heart and embracing a bit of generous compassion? If you said Otto, then you’re probably not far off the mark, but I was talking about Ebenezer Scrooge. That’s the connection there. The Christmas Ale is about festive times with friends and family. Hopefully it is an effective social lubricant for however the imbiber chooses to pass the holiday season.
What kind of difficulties have you encountered (if any) brewing a beer like Christmas Ale and how have you worked through them?
Otto: Well the first thing was the name. My oh my how we talked and second guessed ourselves and then talked some more about whether we could call it “Christmas Ale”. Heaven forbid we turn off Hindu drinkers… In this day and age of the overly politically correct perspective, it reaches the point of absurdity quickly. In the end, we simply said that a X-Mas tree and a flavor which is reminiscent of pine and wassail / Gluhwein / Yule, etc. would be a welcome addition in a beer.
Other difficulties include but are not limited to: Brewing a beer this high in alcohol on our system. It is challenging and it decreases the overall yield and efficiency. The same can be said for dry hopping and we have been making more dry hopped beers to add to the challenges. The addition of spices and their extraction also poses it own set of unique obstacles. All in all, nothing gets you in the mood for the holidays like a beer that is difficult to make. All of our beer is made with love, but it is the smidgen of spite and resentment that makes it that much more special…
Otto: Yes. This year the recipe has been changed. The conversation really started when Derek Stepanski (quality control) voiced some thoughts on changes before production planning got going earlier this year (end of summer). I mention the dry hopping technique and our capacity to do so. This year, we removed the dry hopping from the beer. We replaced the piney quality by spicing with juniper berries. Jared Williamson, one of our new brewers had used these before in a beer and we shifted that direction for the piney character.
We also felt that the beer was a bit heavy and could use some help in terms of lightening the sweetness. With this goal in mind, we added honey to the recipe. Honey is more fermentable and it allowed the yeast to consume more sugars producing a beer that was still sweet but not in a cloying manner. As with any experiment, it is always wise to change multiple variables such that you have no discernable way in which to determine which change had the most positive or negative effect. In that spirit, we also decided to change the spice extraction methods as well as add ginger root to the orange, clove and cardamom.
We have tossed around the idea of changing the beer every year, but have not made any firm commitments to that. It is hard. If we find something that people truly like, then it is tough to continue the range of inspiration among our creative staff if the customer wants the consistency of a special beer they grow to love. We are developing a new line for such playfulness with our beers in our “Brewer’s Choice” series.
What kind of foods would you suggest pairing Christmas Ale with?
Otto: This is a big beer which we have made to be more drinkable and interesting. It pairs well with some big dishes around the holidays. If you are having meat, some game, or poultry, which often strays from the leaner side of protein, the alcohol and clean spicy character of this beer is cleansing to the palate and pairs well. In that instance, it does well to serve the beer cold to retain some carbonation and allow the CO2 bite to play its role as a palate cleanser. It will enhance certain rich foods such as potatoes in the same way. Try pairing it with a Pommes Dauphinois or sweet potatoes.
This beer can also be used in recipes quite well. A Christmas Ale reduction glazed over some roasted yams and parsnips is tasting rather keen in my mind’s eye right about now. If you’re feeling it, dash some bourbon in the pan at the end and flambé the sugars to caramelize the whole lot. Or, simply pour some in a snifter, find a comfortable spot, allow the beer to warm a bit in your hands and nurse it down paired with rich and lively conversation with loved ones. Each sip will be unique and enjoyable. Hopefully on the other end of this holiday season, we can say the same about the company we chose to keep.