25 Dec A Little Christmas Cheer: The History of Christmas Beer
First published on 12/25/2018
On this Christmas holiday, a little light reading about the history of Christmas beers is in order. America makes alot of Christmas beer – alot. In the last two weeks alone Walter and I have had (amongst others) Rochester Mills’ 12 Days of Milkshake Stouts (all 12), the Great Lakes’ Christmas Ale, Three Floyds Alpha Klaus, Avery’s Old Jubilation, Prairie Artisan Ales’ Christmas Bomb!, Bier Brewery’s Santa’s Little Helper, Indiana City’s Barrel Aged Cratchit’s Ale….it just goes on and on.
Field Brewing did a 12 Stouts of Christmas based on their Black Friday Stout, but this series started a couple of weeks earlier, and the Fantome de Noel I had was actually from a couple of years ago; the others were primarily beers made for this season, made in this Christmas season. Blind Owl Brewery had/has a bunch of these beers on tap this week, so we tried many of this year’s Christmas beers close to home.
However, it’s not the USA that can lay claim to inventing winter holiday beers; they actually go back to before Christmas itself. The Vikings had a Jul celebration around Dec. 21st (we pronounce it Yule now) where spiced, fermented drinks were raised to honor Odin and the other Norse gods. After Scandinavian became Christian, Christmas and Jul were merged (as were many pagan holidays used to make the move to Christianity more comfortable), and the Norwegian king decreed that every family must brew a designated amount of beer for Jul. This became rigidly codified in the 13 century wherein a failure to produce Christmas beer and throw a party could bring a fine and/or loss of property.
All the Scandinavian countries got in on this tradition, along with Germany, England and Belgium, but it was probably the Swedes that brought the tradition to America in the late 17th century. Then, as now, these were maltier beers with higher ABVs, spiked with some phenolic spice to make them even more warming. The tradition was carried over in Britain, with the Brits actually singing about Christmas beers by the turn of the 18th century (The Merry Boys of Christmas).
One particular beer that we don’t consider of the Christmas variety these days did start out as a Christmas seasonal early in the 20th century. Though the Brouwerji Artois dates back to the early 1700s, their beer named for the Christmas star “Stella” was first brewed in 1926. Even then it was a much lighter beer (a Czech pils) and with less alcohol than most traditional holiday beers (but at 5.2% was high for a pilsner). Stella Artois had a drop in production and sales during World War II due to losing control of the canal through which they brought in ingredients, but after the war, sales again increased. It dropped off in popularity again and was certainly lost as a holiday beer during the years of brewery consolidation, despite an effort to bolster it with a Christmas album collaboration (Under the Holiday Star), and Stella is now owned and brewed by AB InBev. With a larger marketing budget, Stella Artois is sold year round now.
Many beers with a Christmas flair are now produced locally, regionally, and nationally, but perhaps the most famous is Samichlaus, brewed on December 6th – and only December 6th – each year. Brewed first in 1980, this Swiss beer took advantage of a brewery-developed yeast which could survive higher alcohol levels and gravity and still actively ferment. Nowadays, that’s not that uncommon, but a 14% beer in 1980 was truly a wonder. Now owned and brewed in Austria after a brief lapse of production from 1996-2000, Samichlaus is sought out for its rarity and the fact that it is aged for nearly a year before bottling. All this being said, we’ve got a ton of beer in the house for Christmas, and not one of them is a Christmas beer – what are you drinking today?
Thanks to this Serious Eats article for some of the information used in this article.
Banner image credit: Brew Studs