When the Christmas season comes around, Americans are inundated with a myriad of new products for purchase consideration. And that includes beer.
Breweries across the U.S. produce their own seasonal brews, often styled as the American Winter Warmer. But many other styles are certainly appropriate, such as Brown Ales, Porters, and Stouts.
The American craft beer industry began producing the holiday seasonal brews beginning in 1975 with the classic Our Special Ale (Anchor Christmas Ale) by Anchor Brewing. This seasonal mainstay is still in production 45 years later with the San Francisco brewery secretly holding on to its recipe of “wintry” spices.
The seasonal was an immediate hit upon its release but it would be another six years before another brewery would craft its own winter beer. The first-ever IPA crafted by Sierra Nevada Brewing is their Celebration Ale, initially produced in 1981. Other breweries eventually followed suit and more hits like the Great Lakes Christmas Ale (1992) and Tröegs The Mad Elf (2002) emerged. While all these beers were popular, they had no real similarities stylistically besides having a seasonal “something-or-other” thrown in.
So what’s the difference? Well, as the Beer Judge Certification Program points out, a winter seasonal should be “a stronger, darker, spiced beer that often has a rich body and warming finish suggesting a good accompaniment for the cold winter season.”
Like anything else produced during the holiday season, there’s a marketing incentive behind it. But the custom of brewing special beers for the winter is a tradition that dates back centuries. And so, where did these cold-weather brews originate?
The Vikings and Christmas Beer
The winter seasonal style has a long history in brewing cultures worldwide. France has their bière de Noel while Germany has the weihnacht.
But it’s the pre-Christian Scandinavian countries that have the strongest claim to the holiday brew’s origin.
The Vikings enjoyed a strong, malty beer during their Jul — or Yule — celebrations: their December 21st festivities involved them “drinking Jul,” with brews offered up to Odin, Frey and the other Norse gods.
And even after Christianity became the official religion, the tradition continued as brewing a Christmas beer was made into law. King Haakon I (“The Good”, c. 920-961) of Norway decreed that every household must brew a measure of beer for Jul. The original pagan celebration was rolled into the overlapping Christmas holidays.
That tradition was reinforced further by the Gulating Laws that were recorded in 13th century. Those laws were probably established long before but regardless, they now defined specific penalties for households who failed to brew their Christmas beer. Penalties included fines and even loss of property.
Sweden and Denmark, also part of Scandinavia, shared Norway’s zeal for holiday brewing and drinking. In fact, the Swedes were among the first Europeans to bring their Christmas beer tradition to North America in the 17th century.
The commercial production of Christmas beers in Scandinavia only began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, modern Scandinavian brewers continue to brew Julebryg and Juleøl for Christmas — or for a Jul celebration.
Christmas Beers Elsewhere in Europe
Other countries in Europe caught on to the Christmas brewing tradition. In Britain, a song from 1681 named “The Merry Boys of Christmas; Or, The Milk-Maid’s New Year’s Gift” celebrated the ritual of having a strong Christmas beer (or several).
An anonymous British correspondent noted in 1804 that the Christmas beers were “pleasing to the palate but heady.”
And commercial brewers in Britain were producing Christmas beers in the 19th century. A popular British brew, Young’s Winter Warmer, was originally a Burton-style ale, and as such, its strength and sweetness complemented the winter season perfectly.
Did you know that Stella Artois was originally a Christmas beer? Today, it’s lost some of that seasonal luster, but the beer originally appeared in Belgium in 1926. The beer was named “Stella” to commemorate the Christmas star while “Artois” was added in recognition of 18th century brewer Sebastianus Artois, who took over Den Horen Brewery in Leuven, Belgium, in 1708.
Christmas Beer and Modern Brewing
But perhaps the most famous — and arguably most important — Christmas beer ever produced is the Samichlaus from the Hürlimann Brewery in Zurich, Switzerland.
Named for Santa Claus, what makes this brew so special is in its alcohol strength and the science behind it that would influence brewing the world over.
You see, naturally fermented products share an interesting trait: yeast converts sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. But at a certain point the yeast dies when the alcohol level becomes too high.
Yeasts commonly associated with beer die around 8 to 12% ABV while wine yeasts survive at 14 to 18% ABV. Ironically, the very process in which yeasts thrives is also what brings about its toxic end.
Traditional Old World beers had a level of 4 to 6% ABV while wines were typicall at 11 to 13% ABV.
The Hürlimann Brewery was founded in 1836 and was of little significance until Albert Hürlimann, a scientist and yeast specialist, took over the brewery.
Born in 1857, Albert worked in other breweries and learned about the production and cultivation of yeast strains. He used that knowledge to produce lager yeast strains that were resistant to the toxicity of alcohol.
Though Albert passed away in 1934, his family continued brewing, but didn’t produce a beer of any import until 1979.
The aforementioned Samichlaus was brewed on December 6th, St. Nicholas’ Day. The result was a Doppelbock that was the strongest lager in the world at 14% ABV — a record the brewery would hold on to for 15 years.
Samichlaus is known to be intense, malty, spicy and loaded with dark, dried plum notes. This is a brew that could be aged could be aged for many years with its complex flavors changing radically over time.
The Hürlimann Brewery closed in 1997 and production of the Samichlaus halted for three years until its rights were acquired by Austrian brewery Schloss Eggenberg (Eggenberg Castle Brewing) in 2000. And today, that brewery produces four variants of the Samichlaus.
While the Hürlimann Brewery may no longer around, Albert’s legacy still lives on. Brewers today still use a specific yeast to create high-alcohol lagers named the Hürlimann strain.
When you’re tilting back Christmas brew this holiday season, think about the Vikings and other Europeans who paved the way for the beer you enjoy today.