Recipe: Christmas Cheer (Old Ale with fruit)

Homebrew: Christmas Cheer

Do you know the secret to a good fruitcake? It’s using real, non-processed dried fruits instead of the neon-colored, cloyingly candied fruits chunks you find in most commercial varieties. It’s also a matter of having the proper batter-to-fruit ratio. And, wrapping the cake(s) in brandy-soaked cheesecloth to age for at least a month helps.

I’m one of those rare people that actually likes fruitcake! Occasionally I will make fruitcake for the holidays, following a 1950s-era Betty Crocker recipe that I’ve tweaked (with those real fruits). (The “candied fruit” from that recipe I posted way back in 2004 I’ve since replaced with dried apricots, dried pineapple, and dried cherries.)

A few years back I thought it would be a neat idea to formulate a Christmas ale recipe based on, what else, fruitcake. I had a base style in mind: a strong Old Ale, rich and dark and malty, and for the secondary fermentation I would infuse it with the spices and dried fruits I use in that fruitcake recipe.

Thus was born my “Christmas Cheer,” my Fruitcake Old Ale. I haven’t actually brewed this particular recipe since 2012, but I’ve been holding onto bottles since that batch and every now and again I open one up to see how it has aged. In fact I am drinking one right now as I write this—that’s the image above—and I believe I have one last bottle remaining.

(If you’re wondering, this beer has taken on an oxidized note which lends it a sourish sherry note. Personally I think this is one of those instances where oxidation has not harmed the beer, and it’s quite interesting.)

Closeup of homebrew Christmas Cheer

Since it’s a Christmas beer and ’tis the season, I’m sharing the recipe so you can brew it yourself. Obviously it’s too late to brew this beer for this holiday, but as this is a big beer, you can plan ahead and let it age for next Christmas. (Bonus points if you wood age this somehow!)

Recipe: Christmas Cheer

This recipe is all-grain and formulated for five gallons. My targets were: original gravity of 1.073; with 40 to 45 IBUs; and a 154°F mash temperature to develop dextrinous body and mouthfeel. I did a single infusion mash, and let it sit for 90 minutes to ensure conversion.

Ingredients:

  • 8 pounds American 2-row malt
  • 1 pound Crystal 40°L malt
  • 1 pound Crystal 80°L malt
  • 0.5 pounds Special B malt (220°L)
  • 0.25 pounds Biscuit malt (24°L)
  • 0.25 pounds Chocolate malt (300°L)
  • 1 pound light dried malt extract (DME)
  • 12 ounces (1 cup) molasses
  • 0.25 ounces Galena hop pellets – 60 minutes
  • 0.25 ounces Galena hop pellets – 45 minutes
  • 1 ounce Willamette or similar hops – 30 minutes
  • 1 ounce Goldings hops – 15 minutes
  • Wyeast 1098 British Ale

A note about the DME. My original recipe called for 10 pounds of base malt but I reduced that and supplemented with the DME. This was in part due to reducing the amount of malt in my mash tun (it was pretty full!) but also boosting the strength. In fact you could replace this with cane or corn sugar without changing the result much.

For the hops, take these as a suggestion; to keep true to the style I’d suggest the English-type of finishing hops, but as long as you’re in the range, knock yourself out. You’re using just enough to balance the big malts and sugars, not make a hoppy ale.

You’ll note this was a 60 minute boil. You could very easily do a longer boil to develop some kettle caramelization, just pitch your first hops at the 60 minute mark.

After chilling and pitching yeast, ferment for a week or as long as needed for the primary to finish.

Once the primary fermentation has completed, make a note of your gravity—this is important! My starting and ending at this point were 1.072 and 1.013—about 7.82% alcohol by volume. However, once you add the fruit, you are introducing more sugars to the beer, which will further ferment out and boost your alcohol.

Fruits and Spices for the Secondary:

  • 0.5 pounds each of:
    • dates
    • dried pineapple
    • dried apricots
    • raisins (golden or regular)
  • 6 ounces dried tart cherries
  • Cinnamon stick
  • Vanilla bean
  • Chopped candied ginger
  • Other holiday spices as you see fit—nutmeg, mace, etc. I would suggest no more than ½ to 1 teaspoon total

Make sure to chop up all the fruits before adding to the secondary. Age on the beer for about a week or two at the most, then rack to a tertiary (third) fermentation/aging to clarify.

What I noticed at this point was, when I racked the ale off the fruit, the gravity had risen back up to 1.024 — meaning there was a significant amount of sugars added! And after letting it sit in tertiary for about 10 days before bottling, the gravity had fallen once again to 1.014. That means the fruit added an additional 1.28% ABV to the beer—which is why I said to make a note of the previous numbers. The final ABV by these calculations came out to 9.1%.

Bottle or keg, age as you see fit, and enjoy!