Is it the season or the style?

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 33, Issue 6
January 1, 2013 By

Looking at the shelves this season, it occurs to me that Christmas beer must’ve been invented by atheists.

Only non-believers completely lacking in dogma could embrace this anything-goes style of beer, a style that not only irreligiously rejects the confines of formal classification but whose original purpose was nothing less than the blasphemous inebriation of partakers on the otherwise solemn occasion of Christ’s birth.

Just take a look at some of the bottles who take the Christmas name in vain.

Great Lakes Christmas Ale is made with honey.

Schlafly Christmas Ale is made with juniper berries.

Blue & Gray Christmas Cranberry is made with, yup, cranberries.

Moylan’s White Christmas is made with rye and wheat.

And Bristol Brewing Christmas Ale is made with just about everything in your mother’s spice cabinet.

Anchor has proclaimed “Merry Christmas & Happy New Year” with tree branches and licorice.

And forget about Abita—it changes the recipe for its Christmas Ale every year.

Van den Bossche Father Christmas is corked. Sly Fox Christmas Ale comes in a can.

Gritty McDuff’s Christmas Ale is an ESB, Goose Island’s is a brown ale. Three Floyds Alpha Klaus Xmas is a porter. Weeping Radish Christmas Bier is a doppelbock.

Don’t look for any definitive guidance on the import aisle: France’s Brassier La Choulette makes a biere de garde for Noël; Brasserie Dubuisson’s Scaldis Noel from Belgium is a strong dark ale; Germany’s Brauerei Mahr makes a Christmas Bock; Harvey’s Christmas Ale from England is a barleywine. And forget about Denmark: Its Mikeller Red/White Christmas is a mix-and-match blend of British red ale and Belgian witbier.

The only thing they seemingly share in common is their head-banging potency that gives “Silent Night” a whole ‘nother meaning—especially when it’s labeled “Stille Nacht” and it contains no less than 12 percent alcohol.

Heretics! Infidels! Pagans!

Gift of the Gods

Well, now that you mention it… it turns out all these seasonal beers owe their existence not to the baby in the manger, but to the much older and more profane celebration of the winter solstice. Yes, it was naked Druids dancing around stone monuments carved with weird symbols who invented Christmas brew.

Consider the ancient world of four, five, six thousand years ago, of Stone Age tribes living in caves, before cities, before writing, before can openers. Fearful and superstitious, mankind bowed to whatever it didn’t understand, and its most visible god was the sun itself. It offered warmth and light in a cold, dark world. It controlled the growing seasons and guided the calendar. The shortest day of the year, when the sun sat lowest to the horizon, marked the end of a fruitful harvest and the start of grueling cold months before the earth would be reborn in the spring.

Surely, it was an occasion that was worthy of celebration, and there is ample evidence of solstice festivals in our earliest recorded history. Wherever people gathered, food was prepared and beer was fermented.

Yes, beer, for as we know it was the farming of grain that allowed man (or, more precisely, woman who did the cooking) to settle down and build civilization. The primitive, soupy mixes of cereal and water was dependable sustenance—a far more efficient solution to hunger than roaming the countryside in search of a wooly mammoth.

And when it eventually fermented, glory to the heavens! It made you dizzy and happy—truly, it must be a gift of the gods. Why, if you drank enough of it, you might actually see God himself.

On the occasion of the solstice, celebrants would settle for nothing less than the very best of this sacred drink—the strongest beer made with ample malted grains, flavored with the very best spices and herbs. And it would’ve flowed freely, gloriously creating a physical bond between man and the gods, between earth and sun.

And so it went, for thousands of years, with various civilizations worshipping their sun god. The Mesopotamians had Utu, the Aztecs bowed to Tonatiuh, the Egyptians worshipped Ra, the Greeks built temples to Helios. Shortly after the time of Christ, Roman cults were celebrating the birthday of Sol Invictus (Invincible Sun) on December 25th.

A Tradition, Not a Style

It was these pagan solstice holidays—filled with unrestrained debauchery each winter solstice—that many historians say Pope Julius I sought to co-opt when, in the 4th century,he declared that the holy date of Christ’s birth was the 25th of December.

Yet, while the papacy managed to take the paganism out of the holiday, it wisely never tried to take the beer out of Christmas.

Indeed, over the centuries, the entire notion of “Christmas beer” became ingrained in the holiday as much as yule logs and mistletoe. The monasteries of Europe celebrated the birth of Jesus with Prima Melior, their breweries’ best of the best. Norwegian farmers were required to brew juleøl—yule ale—for their workers or face expulsion from their property. And throughout the 19th century, British workhouses—those Dickensian homes for the poor—broke the tedium with free Christmas ale for their residents.

And so it goes today, with hundreds of commercial breweries celebrating the season in their own way.

The long backstory of this iconic style is important because it establishes that Christmas beer isn’t really a style—it’s a tradition.

Other varieties, like India pale ale and stout and bock, were born out of tradition, too. But each is made to specific criteria—the type and amount of malt and hops, the flavor, the body, the alcohol content, all of it related to the available ingredients and brewing methods of their time.

Christmas beer, by contrast, is a sprite. It is as fanciful as stockings hung by the chimney with care, of a child’s dreams of flying reindeer. It follows no criteria. Or, to put it more bluntly: Santa Claus don’t need no stinkin’ badges.

Christmas Beer Guidelines

Not that some rule-makers haven’t tried.

The Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines (Category 21 B) say its aroma should be “reminiscent of Christmas cookies,” its appearance should be amber to dark brown, and it must taste “rich and malty.”

Interestingly, the guidelines demand: “spices are required.”

Now, a stickler would point out here that some of the brands the BJCP cites as leading commercial examples do not, in fact, contain spices. For example, the hugely popular Troegs Mad Elf from Pennsylvania might taste spicy, but that sensation is a product of its phenol-producing Belgian yeast strain, not cinnamon or nutmeg.

Even the BJCP acknowledges the shortcomings of its guidelines.

It concedes many brands that call themselves Christmas beer don’t meet its narrowly defined criteria. Even classic styles, like English winter warmers and German Weihnacht lagers—styles that are far more authentic than newfangled American Christmas beers made with, let’s say, cranberries—are not welcome. Indeed, under these rules, Samichlaus Bier—the highly regarded Austrian triple bock that is brewed only on St. Nicholas Day, a beer that the late British beer critic Michael Jackson himself saved from extinction—does not qualify as a Christmas beer, even if it’s named after Santa Claus himself.

It seems obvious that trying to define Christmas beer by color or alcohol content or flavor or ingredients is a fruitless pursuit. In this secular age, you can’t even define Christmas beer by its name; these days, we often euphemistically refer to them as “holiday” ales, or give them wintry names like “Hibernation Ale” or Snow-Something-or-Other.

So, how can we define Christmas beer?

That’s actually quite simple: It’s a beer that was brewed as a gift.

It can be any style, any flavor, any color, any name—it doesn’t matter as long as it was given and received as a gift. Why? Because gift-giving is the most essential part of the holiday.

Now, we can argue over the origins of the tradition of giving gifts at Christmastime. Some say it stems from the gold, myrrh and frankincense brought to Jesus by the magi; others note that gift-giving was part of pre-Christian solstice celebrations, including Rome’s Saturnalia. But worrying about the origins of this tradition is as unrewarding as debating the ever-changing spice content of Anchor Our Special Ale.

The significance of gift giving is that it is an act of sharing, a mindful transaction between the giver and the recipient.

In the case of Christmas beer, no everyday beer will do. A gift is something special; it must be brewed with better ingredients or spices or to a greater strength.

Likewise, it can not be accepted as an everyday beer. It must be received with appreciation for its craftsmanship, its unique flavor, its potency.

Unwrap it and smile.

But remember: Gift-giving is meaningless unless both the giver and the recipient share in this spirit of good will. Otherwise it might as well be just another sixpack of Michelob Ultra.

Drinking Songs

Don’t laugh: Centuries ago, an ordinary beer at Christmastime might’ve earned you a good thumping from an angry mob.

I’m referring to the grand tradition of wassail, a familiar if little-used word whose roots are in a fifth-century Saxon toast: ves heill, good health. Through much of the second millennium, wassail also meant the joyous singing of songs by crowds of red-nosed revelers, marching from door to door at Christmastime, carrying gaily decorated cups that would be ladled with ale.

And not just any ale.

A fitting bowl would be English ale flavored with nutmeg and sugar, garnished with toast and roasted crab apples. Some called the beverage “lamb’s wool,” perhaps because it was so warming.

And it better be strong—much stronger than the usual small beer they drank from day to day. In Norway, where many Christmas beer traditions began, a farmer who served weak beer was considered dishonorable and would have a spell cast on his land.

Or worse. Consider some of the lyrics of English wassail songs of yore:

A mug of your Christmas ale, sir,

Will make us merry and sing

But money in our pockets

Is much a better thing.

And

Come, butler, come fill us a bowl of the best,

Then I hope that your soul in heaven may rest;

But if you do draw us a bowl of the small,

Then down fall butler, bowl and all!

And

We have come to claim our right.

And if you don’t open up your door,

We’ll lay you flat upon the floor.

Yikes. This less-than-serene sentiment—perhaps accompanied by axes and cudgels—was a far cry from the origins of Christmas. So much so that the stiff-collar Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, appalled by the violence, actually banned Christmas in the mid-1600s.

Ultimately, though, Christmas would be restored and wassail would evolve into one of the grandest traditions of the season: Christmas caroling. Those gentle songs we sing in the church pews today – “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Away in the Manger” – were written as drinking songs for the street.

An Evolution

As for the beer, well it, too, evolved.

In much of Scandinavia, they warm up with steaming mugs of gløgg– a drink made with raisins, almonds, spices and a shot of aquavit. In Germany, the Christkindlmarkt vendors sell bottles of bock-like Weihnachtsbier. In Lithuania, they market Christmas eve with kvass, made from black bread. In Denmark, they begin their celebration on J-Dag, the first Friday of November, when their beloved julebryg is released. In Sweden, the kids drink julmust, a stout-like non-alcoholic Christmas drink that’s made with sugar, hops, malt extract and spices.

And in America? Christmas beer has evolved here as well.

Before Prohibition, Christmas beer was little more than a standard brand that happened to be advertised in newspapers by, ho-ho-ho, Santa Claus himself.

After Prohibition and into the 1950s, Christmas beer was not much more than a slightly malty, slightly darker lager, like a Marzen. Stacks of red-and-green cases would attract lines of customers. The Potosi Brewing Co. symbolically changed its name each year to “Holiday Brewing Company,” to produce its Wisconsin Holiday Beer.

It gradually disappeared till—surprise, surprise—Fritz Maytag revived the tradition at San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing. Maytag, of course, was the guy who was responsible for re-introducing steam beer, IPA, barleywine and other varieties as he led the entire microbrewing revolution into the 21st century.

Years ago when I asked him about the origins of Anchor Our Special Ale, he told me, “I was aware of the traditions in medieval villages where they would make special beers for various festival days. You’d have beers brewed for weddings, festivals, and other celebrations. And certainly you’d brew them for Christmas.” It made sense that a small brewery that had been revived thanks to old-world beer-making techniques would rediscover the tradition of holiday beer. There was only one problem: Maytag said he didn’t have a clue what it should taste like.

Eventually, he went with a dry-hopped English ale – a recipe that later morphed into Anchor Liberty Ale. The first bottles were hand-labeled in 1975 and immediately sold out.

In 1987, to celebrate his wedding, Maytag crafted a bridal ale filled with herbs and spices. That winter, Anchor adapted the recipe for its Christmas beer, and it’s done so ever since. Though the brewery never reveals the ale’s true content, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, spruce nibs and cocoa have been detected over the years.

Many beer drinkers now think of Anchor as the prototype for all Christmas beer, which is deserving—but also means many likewise regard spice as essential to the style.

Spice is nice, but that negates the likes of England’s grand winter warmers. Why, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome, Young’s Winter Warmer or American knockoffs of the style, like Bridgeport Ebenezer Ale or Full Sail Wassail—none of which contain even a sprinkle of spice.

And what of Sierra Nevada Celebration, a well-hopped pale ale? No spice there, either. But I couldn’t get into the holiday spirit without those gorgeous Cascades.

The problem here is with the attempt to set standards for what is undoubtedly a personal tradition.

Catholics celebrate the holiday with a Christmas eve mass. Protestants sing carols throughout the entire month. And Jewish people? I think they take bottles of He’Brew Jewbelation to Chinese restaurants on Christmas, don’t they?

Some families do that whole Seven Fishes meal, others carve a ham. Mine? Let me tell you how we celebrated the holiday growing up:

On Christmas eve, sometime after dark when the cops on the overnight shift were keeping warm in the Dunkin’ Donuts, my brother and I would sneak over to the municipal parking lot and steal a couple left-over evergreens. We stuffed them in the back of the family station wagon and carted them back to decorate our house.

Not exactly Norman Rockwell, I realize, but we still get a laugh about it while reminiscing every year.

My brother, I should mention, grew up to become a sober Baptist minister who conducts lavish candlelit cantatas on Christmas morning.

Me? I may be atheist, but I’m a true believer in Christmas beer. I can’t wait to open up my gifts.


Don Russell
Don Russell writes the Joe Sixpack beer column at the Philadelphia Daily News and is the author of Wishing You a Merry Christmas Beer (Universe, 2008).