Hops for the Holidays: A Brief History Of Holiday Beer
When most Americans turn on their TVs during the holiday season, they’re inundated with Christmas ads pushing toys for kids, tools for dads, and jewelry for moms (or the ever ubiquitous Lexus commercials we all love to hate). But recently, beer brands have sought to capitalize on the holiday season by promoting their wares, such as Budweiser and their famous Clydesdales. While just a holiday commercial, Budweiser highlights a growing number of people who associate Christmas with beer.
The tradition of beer as a holiday drink dates back, like many other beer-related things, to the Vikings. As Serious Eat’s Beer History blogger Lisa Grimm notes in her piece on beer history, the Vikings drank to their gods during their Jul celebrations (the Scandinavian Yuletide season) on December 21.
Beer drinking around Christmas time was so important to Scandinavian culture that even when Christianity became the official religion of Norway, King Haakon I required that all households brew a Jul beer each year. Failure to do so would result in a fine, and after three years of no beer farm owners could lose their land.
While Christmas beers have taken on many forms over the years, one of the most aggressive marketers of their Christmas brew is Stella Artois. Stella, which was originally brewed as a Christmas beer starting in 1926, was, as Grimm explains, “a nod to the storied Christmas star,” and named after Stella’s head brewer from the 18th century, Sebastianus Artois, who took over the brewery in 1708.
As Philly Beer Scene notes, the modern day concept of a Christmas beer — one that is strong, malty, and spiced (such as the examples below) — was popularized in the British brewing tradition. Burton Ales, which were traditionally strong and malty, fell out of favor at times, but were always a go-to during the long winter months in England.
Indeed, here in America when most people think of Christmas beer they often tend towards dark, malty, and spiced. Here are a few examples of Christmas beer (and one special set of beers for those that celebrate Chanukah):
Great Lakes Brewing Company Christmas Ale: Folks from the Midwest who have made their way east clamor for this beer each Christmas season (even those who traditionally aren’t a fan of this style). That’s for good reason; this beer is Christmas in a bottle. Brewed with a beautiful malty base and hints of sweetness, Great Lakes brewmasters also add in ginger, honey and cinnamon, while lightly hopping with the slightly spicy Cascade and Mt. Hood hops.
Sam Adams Old Fezziwig Ale: One of the first Christmas beers I ever had the pleasure of tasting came in Sam Adams’ winter variety pack and had this wonderfully Christmas-themed name, Old Fezziwig. To this day, I associate Christmas beers with Old Fezziwig (and even brewed a clone this year for family and friends). Similar to Great Lakes’ offering, Old Fezziwig has a sweet malty base, but adds in a good amount of chocolate malt to provide a chocolaty sweetness. Hopping in the traditional Sam Adams way of using noble German hops, this beer uses Hallertau and Tettnang for a pleasant spiciness, and also adds in ginger, orange peel, and cinnamon.
Anderson Valley Winter Solstice Ale: Another beer I drank early on in my drinking career, Anderson Valley Solstice has a strong delicious sweetness that cuts through early on. As the beer warms, the sweetness mellows into the beer and the Northern Brewer and Liberty hops add an assertive bite.
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale: Taking Christmas beer in a radically different direction, Sierra Nevada does what it does best and provides drinkers with a fresh hop IPA in their Celebration Ale. Using Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook hops, this fresh hop beer is a go-to for many who may burn out their palates on the dark malty stuff. Fresh hops are clean in flavor and provide the drinker with the freshest tasting hops from the previous season.
Schmaltz Brewing Company’s The Hannukah Menorah Pack: For those who don’t celebrate Christmas, or who want to provide a little variety to their beer lineup, grab a Menorah Pack from Schmaltz Brewing Company. There is a beer for each night of Chanukah, candles, and an empty beer bottle that can be used to light the candles on the other beers (aka the shamash). While the beers themselves are hit or miss, the novelty of the pack brings me back year after year.
While I hope this holiday season brings joy and happiness into all your lives, I also hope it brings some beer to your lips. Cold winter nights or celebrations with family and friends are the perfect times to drink a warm and toasty beer and relax during this wonderful season.
Salvatore Colleluori is a political writer by day and a homebrewer and beer enthusiast by night. He holds a degree in Political Science from the George Washington University and enjoys reading about alcohol, history, and foreign relations. He is also an avid music lover, specifically jazz and the Grateful Dead.
Photo credit: John McStravick