Ah, the Christmas holidays…at this darkest time of the year, no beer goes better with the season than a crisp, golden lager. Wait, what? If you usually associate darker or perhaps spicier beers with winter, you’re not alone, but the world’s most successful beer specifically brewed as a Christmas beer is now rarely associated with the holidays—one Stella Artois. Let’s back up briefly.
While the branding genies like to tie a date of 1366 to the beer, even the most scientifically-inclined Belgian monks were not creating pale lagers back then; perhaps even more surprising is the fact that not only did Stella originate as a Christmas beer in 1926, it was first marketed in Canada before returning victorious to Europe. While it is true that beer has been brewed more or less on the site in Leuven since the fourteenth century (and possibly before), the ‘Artois’ part of the name dates to the early 18th century, when Sebastianus Artois took over the Den Horen Brewery. Combining his surname with the Latin word for ‘star’ was only intended to promote a seasonal beer and instead, it launched a global juggernaut that few would now associate with the holidays.
But brewing special beers for this time of year is not simply a construct of modern marketing; Christmas or midwinter beers have been enjoyed for hundreds of years, and quite probably go much deeper into prehistory, as beer itself does. Textual evidence includes much fist-shaking by early Christian saints—the 7th-century Irish missionary St. Columbanus smashed casks of sacred beer which the Germanic Alemanni tribe had brewed to celebrate pagan god Wotan in December, and even before that, the Greeks and Romans had, in their turns, been disapproving about beer in general (though it is worth noting that Roman soldiers were often quite pleased with local beers when they were dispatched to the farther reaches of the empire). Later medieval religious folk approved of winter beers, however, in the 12th century, Hildegard von Bingen (when she was not busy composing music or experiencing strange auras) suggested that beer could help treat a number of medical disorders and especially recommended its consumption in winter, when it was considered much safer than water.
And stronger beer for the winter was certainly not just for celebrations, especially in the north–in his Uncorking the Past, Patrick E. McGovern reminds readers that obtaining enough calories to get through the winter required a bit of creativity for those living at these latitudes–stronger beers were one useful way to achieve that goal by using the resources available locally. There is ample evidence of brewing–and celebrating–with beer throughout the European Bronze and Iron Ages, and the Celts and Norse became especially well-known for liking a drink and a party (much to the disapproval of the Romans). We have more seasonally-specific knowledge when we get to the Vikings, whose Jul (or Yule) celebrations began to be recognizable as forerunners of many of our current holiday traditions. December 21st was the day special beers were offered up (and drunk) to Odin and Frey, and ‘drinking Jul’ was an essential part of the celebration.
Brewing good beer for Jul (which slowly morphed into a December 25th Christmas celebration) was even codified in law; in the 10th century, King Haakon I made it an offence to fail to brew a measure of beer for the mandated festive gatherings held at midwinter. And these laws were enforced—any peasant who failed to brew Christmas beer for a year paid a fine, and missing three years in a row could result in forfeiture of property. This tradition continued in Scandinavia well into the modern period, and old recipes are often quite similar—a very malty beer, often with some juniper thrown in along with some locally-grown hops. Some of the first Christmas beers we know about in North America are mentioned in accounts of 17th century Swedish settlers along the Delaware River, so there is a long history of engendering seasonal cheer with specially-brewed beer in the Philadelphia region.
Some of this Norse spiced-ale tradition was carried into Britain as well; as the Vikings were establishing footholds in (and occasionally ruling) the country, they also brought their custom of drinking toasts to their companions’ health—ves heil eventually became ‘wassail’ and an association with the winter holidays, from Christmas to Twelfth Night, became entrenched. A particular variety of ale, used for wassailing purposes in the 15th and 16th centuries, lambswool, was so called because its ingredients made the surface so cloudy and frothy. Roasted apples, nutmeg, ginger and sugar were all involved, and milk could be added as well, though hops were still something of a rarity in some corners at this period (the town fathers of Shrewsbury outlawed hops in 1519, they viewed such additives as ‘…a wicked and pernicious weed…’) so alternatives were required. These festive beers were often served after adding further mulling spices, or were simply heated over a fire to help keep out the cold. References to the more traditional variety of wassail, spices and all, continue well into the 20th century, and not just in Christmas carols. Though it can certainly be argued that a late 19th century revival of interest in Things Medieval kept the wassailing custom alive, it is clear that domestic production carried on in some form until relatively recent decades.
But beer evolved with the times, and as Britain moved toward commercial brewing, offerings became more standardized. Milk and apples were not, on the whole, welcomed into the ever-more-industrial brewery setting, but a stronger beer still appealed in the winter. The Oxford Companion to Beer suggests that the heated beers popular at Christmas in earlier periods fell out of favor after the transition to hops. On the whole, hoppy beer does not tend to provide a pleasing experience after heat has been applied to the finished beer, but there was still market demand for a stronger, sweeter winter beer. This gap was filled by the strong ales brewed in Burton-on-Trent for generations, although the notion of branding Burton ales as winter-specific beers only seems to have arisen in the early 20th century. They remained popular, especially around the Christmas holidays, until the 1950s, when the style dramatically fell out of favor. Young’s got around the sudden change in tastes by rebranding their Burton Ale as a Winter Warmer—as, indeed, it remains to this day. A number of barleywines have also been similarly re-positioned (or re-introduced) over the years by other UK brewers.
Here in the Philadelphia region, with its mix of British, German and other historical brewing traditions (as mentioned above, the Swedes did get the ball rolling), brewers have not felt the need to rely upon any one single influence, and have often simply made up their own rules for creating the perfect Christmas beer. Always a local holiday favorite, Tröegs Mad Elf traces its origins to an idea the Brothers Trogner were mulling over back in 2001. They knew they wanted to make a higher-gravity beer for the season, but exactly what it would be was still very much up in the air. One possibility they considered was a wine barrel-aged strong ale of indeterminate type (obviously, they were ahead of the game in that regard), but they were put off by the high price of the barrels in question.
The barrel-aging plan was summarily abandoned, but the goal was still to create a stronger beer with some wine-like qualities. A base of chocolate malt was selected to add dark, warm maltiness, and honey was suggested to up the strength. The final ‘special’ addition to the recipe, cherries, would send the resulting beer back toward the wine end of the spectrum.
Of course, the newly-designed beer still needed a name, and ‘Mad Elf’ came up during a family night out at a local pub. It was seized upon with such enthusiasm that designs for the artwork began immediately, there in the bar. An unfortunate meeting with some wing sauce has kept the original deranged-elf design on a napkin from finding pride of place in the Tröegs archives, but the newly-christened beer was now well on its journey to becoming one of the most popular seasonal fixtures in the region.
After a successful draft-only launch in its inaugural year, Mad Elf made its bottled debut the following year with a limited run of 2500 cases; while the beer scene was growing, it was still assumed to be something of a strange beer to explain to a wider audience. But Mad Elf’s reputation preceded it: “The plan was to put out enough bottles to sell from Thanksgiving to Christmas,” said Chris Trogner. “I don’t even think we made it to Thanksgiving.” Many of the cases were pre-sold even before leaving the brewery, and distributors clamored for extra cases–quite a feat for a beer whose reputation was built only on word-of-mouth. Mad Elf’s popularity continues to grow and although it now comes out in mid-October, fans in some markets are sad to find it’s gone by the time Christmas itself rolls around.
Sly Fox’s Christmas Ale was more directly inspired by notions of traditional British wassails, and while apples have not been part of the mix, spices most certainly are. It begins as a red ale–that base is the same from year to year—but the spice character is something new each season. Brewmaster Brian O’Reilly notes that it can be difficult to predict exactly how the spice angle will shape up: “We notice a big difference in the fresh ginger each year and we attempt to compensate for that.”
The brewing process includes making a ‘spice tea’ including the aforementioned ginger, cloves, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon, and while it certainly enhances the brewery’s smell for a few weeks, it’s no simple task to make it happen each year. O’Reilly continues, “Making the spice tea for the brew is definitely a labor of love. The first couple batches that we spice are exciting. The whole brewery will fill with the aroma of mulling spices. By the time we are spicing the last batch of the season we are definitely happy to not have to deal with peeling and chopping ginger again until the next year.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that given Sly Fox’s success with canning their beers, they’ve made their Christmas Ale particularly handy for last-minute gift-giving: the cans come with fill-in-the-blank ‘to’ and ‘from’ fields.
Finally, Victory gets into the spirit of the season without having to be quite so date-aligned—their Old Horizontal barleywine is a winter-long favorite. While Victory is well-known for their many German-inspired beers, they’ve headed in a slightly more British direction and have positioned Old Horizontal as a winter warmer, rather than as a beer that screams ‘holidays.’
“We’ve avoided brewing a Christmas-specific beer because any beer left undrunk on the 26th basically becomes useless,” said Bill Covaleski President and Brewmaster of Victory Brewing Company. “It’s the same reason our Festbier isn’t named ‘Oktoberfestbier.’” Ron Barchet, CEO and Brewmaster added, “The distribution management of a one-day beer can be a nightmare.”
Despite Old Horizontal’s popularity, it had to be left off the team last year, as Victory worked to keep up with demand for their year-round beers. Fans will be delighted to know it’s returning in more rarified form this year, as a barrel-aged version to be known as Oak Horizontal will be out just in time for the holidays. But making Old Horizontal (in either form) more than just a holiday beer is a smart move—it can still be enjoyed on a cold January night just as well as it can the week before Christmas.
Whether your taste in Christmas beers runs to the spiced ale end of the spectrum, or if you prefer something rich and eminently sippable in front of a crackling fire—or even if you want to grab a cold one to watch a football game—there are many options available, often with deep historic ties to the holiday season. And, just for good measure, you may want to raise a toast to the Vikings this winter; without their long-ago influence on brewing, we might not have such flavorful choices today. Skål!