Style Profile: Holiday Ales

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Illustration by David Witt

Cue the sleigh bells. Winter’s cold has arrived and brought with it the holiday ales. Liquor store shelves are lined with poinsettia and elf bedecked bottles. Winter warmers can be found by the dozens. There is even a Hanukkah beer or two out there.

What is it that makes these beers particularly appropriate to the season? While many are rich, malty, and a wee-bit strong, the real truth is that holiday beers quite often are holiday beers simply because the brewer has labeled them so. These wintery brews come in all colors, weights, and tastes. There are light ones and dark ones, hoppy ones and malty ones, some spiced and some straight. There are strong ones with alcohol warmth to cut the winter chill, as well as some lightweights that are refreshingly easy to quaff.

“But by the time of the American Revolution it was once again customary to brew “a right strong Christmas beer” to enhance the holiday cheer.”

So where did this holiday beer tradition begin? It isn’t hard to imagine that it is as old as beer itself. There is ample archeological evidence that ancient civilizations from Persia to Britain made beer. For many of them the winter solstice was an important event. Seeing the sun begin to linger longer in the sky after the dark of winter must have been a cause for celebration. Can there be any doubt that these ancient beer brewing cultures would have imbibed some strong ale to solemnize the event?

The Roman Saturnalia was a drunken festival commemorating the god of the harvest held in late December. Although mostly a wine-drinking culture, the Romans did make beer and it was almost certainly part of this revelry. When the third-century emperor Aurelian established a religion around the single deity Sol the sun god, he established his feast day—another opportunity to drink beer—on December 25th. A century later Pope Julius chose that date as the official birthday of Christ, carrying over many of the pagan traditions into the Christian celebration. One of those traditions was beer.

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Beer has remained a part of the holidays ever since. Early monks brewed strong ale to celebrate the season. By 800 AD Norwegian farmers were required by law to brew a holiday juleøl under penalty of forfeiture of land and expulsion from the country. The wassail tradition of singing holiday songs in exchange for strong, spiced ale—like a Christmas version of trick-or-treat—took hold in Britain. It was common in the American colonies too, until the governors of Massachusetts Bay Colony banned the practice in 1659, lest their pious parishioners debauch themselves. But by the time of the American Revolution it was once again customary to brew “a right strong Christmas beer” to enhance the holiday cheer.

Whether spiced or straight, sessionable or strong, many modern holiday ales trace their roots back to these English wassail brews and the beer cocktails of colonial America. Prepared according to closely-guarded recipes and warmed at hearthside, these winter warmers bore imaginative names like “Hum-cup,” “Bellowstop,” and “Yard o’ Flannel.” Among their secret ingredients were molasses, spices, and egg, all added to a base of the innkeeper’s finest ale.

With so much variety, it’s hard to generalize about today’s seasonal brews. And there is no BJCP style category to offer guidance. They tend to be stronger beers, with alcohol levels of 6 percent or higher to give some warming on the way down. While there are hop-forward examples, many of them favor malt; showcasing especially the toffee, toast, and dark fruit flavors of kilned and dark caramel malts and pushing occasionally into the chocolate tones of lightly roasted grains. Seasonal spices like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and ginger are not uncommon, giving these beers the character of Christmas pudding or fruitcake. The subtle fruity esters of fermentation with English yeast are often apparent, but Belgian versions and even clean-fermented lagers can also be found.

Examples

Anchor Our Special Ale (Christmas Ale), Summit Winter Ale, Samuel Smith Winter Welcome, St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, Ridgeway Brewing’s Bad Elf series, Alaskan Winter Ale, Indeed Old Friend Holiday Ale, Samichlaus, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Boom Island Yule

 
About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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