Anticipating the release of holiday brew isn’t exactly new: The beer of cheer is pretty much ancient history.
by Don Russell
On Dec. 9, Morten Granås, a 71-year-old farmer and woodworker who lives outside of the western fjord town of Trondheim in the Norwegian region of Stjørdal, will fire up his brew kettle and reignite one of beer’s grandest traditions.
As the women on his farm begin making their famous lutefisk (lye-soaked cod) for the coming holiday, Granås will measure out the malt he germinated and smoked himself over a bed of alder wood. He will add the juniper berries he picked from the forest, and some hops—just a handful, like he learned when he was 15.
The mash will steep, then filter through juniper branches. The wort will boil and cool. Then Granås will add some simple baker’s yeast and let fermentation do its trick.
Within 10 days, maybe 11, it’ll be ready to be bottled. In his only concession to modern times, Granås will pour the beer into empty plastic Pepsi bottles.
“I brew just like my father did,” says Granås.
And his father, and his father… and generations upon generations of farmhouse brewers before them. The special beer they make on the ninth day of December each year—and the dozens of varieties still made today throughout Europe and America—is the lasting treasure from a tradition that reaches back through the millennia. It is sacred; it is profound. It defines man’s relationship with the earth, with the universe, with eternity.
We call it Christmas beer.
From the tap list at your local brewpub to the shelves of beer stores around the world, the holiday treat, known also as winter warmer, has never been more alive. There are hundreds of varieties, spiced or not, strong, bracing and labeled with colorful names. Sled Wrecker. Tannen Bomb. Frosty’s Revenge. Mad Elf. Samichlaus. Alpha Klaus.
It’s hard to even imagine the connection these beers have with a lone Norwegian farmer toiling in his smoky malt house.
But go back in time, before the microbrewery craze, before Prohibition, before the monasteries of Europe, before Christmas itself. It begins well before the birth of Christ, before the Greek, Roman and Egyptian deities, before paganism. It begins with the sun.
For early man, the sun was god. The sun gave the earth its warmth, its light, its life. It was the sun that set the calendar, told man when to grow his crops and gather food for the months of cold. It was the sun, their god, who was worshipped as it climbed across the sky. In particular, it was celebrated at the winter solstice, when the sun was at its lowest point. It was then that man knew the sun would rise again, that—even with the cold months ahead—Earth would be reborn.
Historians tell us man has been drinking something like beer for 6,000 years. Fermentation was a mystery to ancient man, of course, a gift from the gods. But there is ample evidence that early brewers knew that, with the best ingredients, they could make a strong beer; a beer that would be savored on special occasions, weddings, holy days.
We can imagine that, upon the solstice, the most important day of the year, many a cup would be raised, a bond between mortals and the gods, between Earth and the sun, a toast to the cycle of life, here and beyond.
Civilizations built their own mythologies. The Egyptians bowed to Ra, the Greeks built temples to Helios. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a feast in honor of the Roman god of harvest, Saturn. The party lasted for days, starting in mid-December through the solstice. Businesses shut down, slaves and owners exchanged roles, clothing was optional and drunkenness abounded.
In the northernmost reaches of Europe, in the lands of Scandinavia, the solstice feast was known as Jul, and it was held in honor of Odin and Thor.
“It was a time to charge your batteries for the harsh winter ahead,” says Torbjørn Skogvold, a spokesman at Norway’s Aass brewery who has researched the history of Christmas beer. “People had a hard life. It was cold, they didn’t have proper clothing; it was tough. But if you could drink well and eat well, you’d feel warm.”
What they drank became known as juleøl (øl means beer).
The festival and its beer became so institutionalized that, by 800 AD, Norwegian farmers were required by law to brew juleøl. According to tradition, a farmer would have to make a batch with as much grain as the combined weight of his wife and himself. Any less, and he risked being expelled from the country. “And it had to be strong beer,” Skogvold said. “If it wasn’t, it was considered dishonorable, and your farm would have a spell cast on it.”
It goes without saying that the ancient Norwegians drank like, well, Vikings. To stop before reaching a stupor was bad manners.
By the end of the first millennium, Christianity had spread quickly through Europe. Pope Julius I decreed December 25th as the official date of Christ’s birth—a move some historians believe was intended to usurp the raucous feast of Saturnalia. In 900 AD, Norway’s King Håkon ruled that Jul would be held on the same day, in honor of Christ, not the pagan gods.
No matter. Many of the traditions of the old holiday remained: the gift giving, the decorated trees, the Jul (or Yule) log and, yes, the massive consumption of strong drink. Indeed, until well into the 20th century, Norwegian law mandated that every farm and brewery must make Christmas beer for its workers and villagers.
Though its Christmas beer is the oldest known variety, Norway’s holiday tradition is hardly unique.
Elsewhere in Europe, the Benedictine monasteries of Germany and France celebrated Christmas with special dark ale. In England, the tradition played out in the form of wassail, a spiced ale that was served to carolers and revelers. And in America? The colonies got off to a bit of a rocky start with Christmas beer. In the 1600s, the day had already evolved into a blowout, with raging drunks, fueled by distilled spirits, taking over the streets. The wassail tradition had become little more than an excuse for the lower classes to raise hell and demand money from the wealthy. In 1659, the people of Massachusetts were forbidden to celebrate Christmas.
But Americans would not be denied. By the Revolution, it was customary throughout the states to enjoy what one early historian called “a right strong Christmas beer.” And, when Santa finally arrived on the scene in the mid-19th century, he was often portrayed with a beer in hand.
After Prohibition, the tradition continued, with special holiday beers brewed by most of the major brewers. Those who enjoy today’s vast selection of full-flavored Christmas beers and winter warmers, however, would hardly give those early beers a second glance. Instead of exotic flavors and a strong kick, the brews typically were slightly darker versions of the breweries’ run-of-the-mill year-round lagers, packaged with colorful holiday labels.
It wouldn’t be till 1975 that America finally returned to Christmas’s authentic beer roots.
It was the very beginning of the microbrew explosion, Fritz Maytag had finally perfected his steam beer at San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, and he was ready to try his hand at other styles. “I was aware of the tradition in medieval villages where they would make special beers for various festival days,” Maytag says. “The only holiday beers that I was aware of were one from Fred Koch’s brewery in Dunkirk, N.Y., and Noche Buena from Mexico.”
Maytag’s inaugural effort was an all-malt brown ale dry-hopped with Cascades. In 1983, his holiday brew, known as Our Special Ale, evolved into an English pale ale (similar to Anchor’s current Liberty Ale).
Four years later, to celebrate his wedding, Maytag crafted a bridal ale filled with herbs and spices. It was so tasty, the brewery adapted it for Christmas, turning Our Special Ale into America’s original spiced holiday beer.
Honey? Cinnamon? Nutmeg? No one at the brewery has ever revealed the secret ingredients that change every year. What about juniper berries, like those used in Morten Granås’ holiday beer? Maytag won’t say, but he acknowledges he’s well aware of the ancient Scandinavian tradition.
Back in Stjørdal, Norway, where the winter sun barely creeps over the horizon, Morten Granås will wait until the day after Christmas to truly savor his juleøl. On that day, he and his fellow farmers will gather in the malt house to sample each other’s brews. The flavor is unlike any other beer in the world: It is deeply smoky (far smokier than even Bamberg, Germany’s famous rauchbiers) and mildly spicy. It tastes a bit like munching on some smoked turkey in a pine forest—a pine forest that happens to be on fire.
They’ll trade compliments and toasts, and they’ll return to their homes and wait for the sun to begin its climb back above their heads. It’s a long winter, but their beer is strong. •
Christmas beers are like crazy aunt Mildred’s presents: You never can guess what’s inside. These beers don’t represent specific styles, and there are no rules: A Christmas beer can be (and contain) whatever a brewer wants, as long as it’s special. Below, the cream of this season’s crop.
OUR SPECIAL ALE Anchor Brewing Co., California
People have guessed that this dark ale has been spiced with everything from licorice and nutmeg to chestnut and pumpkin. The ingredients are secret, and that’s part of the fun.
CELEBRATION ALE Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., California.
This extraordinarily hopped pale ale (using Cascades and Centennial flowers) is beautifully balanced and a joy to savor.
AVECLES BONS VOEUX Brasserie Dupont, Belgium
A classic farmhouse ale, Avec was first made for the brewery’s workers. The perfumelike aroma of hops is complemented by layers of spicy flavor from its special yeast strain.
SAMICHLAUS BIER Schloss Eggenberg, Austria
Brewed on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 7), it’s known as the strongest lager (14% ABV) in the world. Drink it from a snifter to enjoy the fruity malt flavors.
WINTER WELCOME ALE Samuel Smith Old Brewery, England
Revived by Seattle beer importer Charles Finkel, this rich, creamy, malty ale is modeled on England’s old wassails.
CORSENDONK CHRISTMAS ALE Brouwerij Corsendonk, Belgium
Named after a now-closed monastery, the Corsendonk brewery produces the prototypical strong, dark Belgian Christmas beer. Rich and dark with a spicy, chocolatey aroma, it’s outstanding either from its corked bottle or on tap.
SANTA’S PRIVATE RESERVE Rogue Ales, Oregon
The hoppy red ale is wonderfully flavorful, but it’s the bottle itself—decorated with glistening, glow-in-the-dark snowflakes—that make this a favorite among beer fans.
SAMUEL ADAMS OLD FEZZIWIG ALE Boston Beer Co., Massachusetts
In Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Old Fezziwig was the antithesis of Scrooge, a generous businessmen loved by his employees. The warmer is spiced with cinnamon and fresh ginger, with a honeylike malt flavor and a bit of orange in the finish.
MAD ELF ALE Tröegs Brewing Co., Pennsylvania
This 11%-ABV Belgian strong dark ale is made with tart cherries and honey. Its dominant character is a tingling clove spiciness, the product of unique Belgian yeast strains.
CHRISTMAS BOCK Mahr’s Bräu, Germany
The first time this festive beer was offered at Mahr’s, locals sucked down the entire supply in two hours. These days, there’s enough of this rich, malty bock for everyone.