Hop Notes: Bell's Christmas Ale goes from farm to bottle

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By: Eric Strader
ericstrader69@gmail.com

Eric Strader/Hop Notes

Each year, there are many, many seasonal Christmas ales from which to choose.  

One of my favorites is Bell’s Christmas Ale (5.5 percent ABV) partly because it tastes great and partly because it is a farm-to-glass beer. Bell’s Christmas Ale highlights Michigan agriculture and fresh ingredients and you can now find it in Michiana bottle shops.

“For us, it’s really a story about ownership of the raw materials,” said Bell’s director of operations, John Mallett. “The full circle of land to barley, malt, to wort and finally to enjoyment.”

Christmas Ale is made with 100 percent Michigan barley grown on Bell’s farm in Shepherd, Mich., between Lansing and Mount Pleasant. Mike Turnwald, who has farmed the land with his family for more than 70 years, is the farmer responsible for this barley. After it is harvested, it is then specially malted into pale, caramel and flaked barley by Briess Malt & Ingredients Company

“For us, it’s really a story about ownership of the raw materials.” 

“In early spring, when we’re all gearing up for Oberon season, we have a couple of dedicated farmers who are already starting to think about Christmas Ale,” said Ed Ruble, beer production manager.  By the time harvest and malting is done, it is around the time Christmas Ales come out.

“We thought this would be a really fun play to do a fresh, local, seasonal, ‘this year’ beer,” Mallet said.

The hops blend includes Chinook from Hop Head Farms in Hickory Corners, 16 miles north from the brewery in Comstock, and also just a few miles from my wife’s family farm in Plainwell, Mich. I have met owners Jeff and Bonnie Steinman many times, who have been growing hops in Michigan since 2007. They began by planting a few hops rhizomes in their backyard. Soon, hops grew into a passion fueled by the amazing brewing community in Michigan and Jeff and Bonnie’s love for horticulture.

The rest of Christmas Ale includes ingredients found in most all of Bell’s beers: water from Kalamazoo and Bell’s house ale yeast. A lot of the unique flavors come from the combination of the unique fermentation and light dry hopping. Unlike other holiday beers, Christmas Ale does not include spices. The dry, toasted notes and subtle toffee flavors come from the barley. 

“Why brew a beer with a focus on Michigan ingredients?” Mallet said. “For me as a brewer, I look to the fact we’re really linked with the agronomic cycle. It’s great to bring that close, to have that connection. For me, that’s the brewer’s art, putting it all together.”

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