The month of December brings festive drinks we’ve come to intimately associate with the holiday season. Americans and Canadians are fond of eggnog, a dairy beverage made with sugar, cream, some kind of spirit like brandy or rum, and a garnish of cinnamon and nutmeg. The Europeans’ drink of choice is mulled wine, usually red mixed with spices, served hot or cold. The Brits make mulled cider, too. In the Germanic countries, glow-wine (glühwein), is the traditional holiday tipple and has been since at least 1420. Glow-wine is red wine mixed with spices like cinnamon, cloves, aniseed, sugar, citrus, vanilla. The Nordics have gløgg (spelled slightly differently depending on the Nordic nation) which is, again, wine with spices, this time with cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and bitter orange. It really doesn’t matter one iota what European nation we select. The name for the beverage and the spice blend changes, but the essential drink remains the same.
Nowadays, there’s another drink associated with the holidays. Beer. We’re not talking about macro breweries pushing green and red colored bottles of their typical offerings, as you’d see with green and red colored M & M’s. We mean beers specifically brewed with the Christmas season in mind.
Although this perennial favorite, which is usually released by breweries in late November and available for 8-10 weeks thereafter, is commonly referred to as a Christmas beer, the name and style are themselves anomalies. The beer itself predates Jesus’ birth and the invention of Christmas. Thousands of years ago, people celebrated the changing of the seasons. The winter solstice which occurs on December 21/22 in all the countries with snow is the year’s shortest day and longest night. The historic Germanic peoples honored this as a holiday called Yule, a midwinter festival. Words similar to yule, like jul (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian), joulo (Finnish), and jõulud (Estonian) have the equivalent meaning of Christmas in their respective languages. After Europe went Christian, many of their pagan traditions were incorporated and turned into Christian observances. It was only in the 4th century that Pope Julius I declared that the 25th of December was Christ’s birthday. Yule thereafter became better known as Christmastide.
Part of the celebration of Yule meant the brewing of special beers for the occasion. These beers were brewed extra strong and utilized various spices. Once Christmas became the excuse for debaucherous celebrations instead of Yule, the winter solstice beers were called Christmas beers. European monasteries were happy to brew them, kind of ironic given their Christian faith was now attached to a ritual begun by pagans. The monasteries offered up Prima Melior, considered to be their finest annual brews.
The concept didn’t last and was dead by the late nineteenth century. In 1915, a Bavarian immigrant marketed a product as Christmas beer and re-introduced the term and Christmas beer very slowly caught on. By the 1930’s, the Miller Brewing Company giant was marketing and distributing a special Christmas beer. Many states later began banning explicit references to Christmas or Santa Claus to avoid what’s known as the politically incorrect ‘Christmas controversy.’ Former Christmas beers became more generically named holiday or special ales.
It was the microbreweries which really ran with the idea. Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, considered by many to be the father of the microbrewery movement, brewed its first Christmas beer in 1975, known as Our Special Ale, famous for its hand drawn labels featuring a different Christmas tree and recipe every year.
When Fritz Maytag of Anchor first conceived of marketing a Christmas beer, he had no idea what kind of beer he was actually going to offer. In the multiple centuries Christmas beer has been around as a beverage, no true Christmas beer style ever developed. Anchor started off with a malty English ale which evolved into a spicier ale over the next decade. Anchor and the spiced Christmas wines of European Christmas tradition set the general tone for modern Christmas beer expectations thereafter. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) rode along on this train when they advised in their guidelines that “spices are required, and often include those evocative of the Christmas season (e.g., allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger) but any combination is possible and creativity is encouraged.”
In actuality, a Christmas beer can be any type of brew. In a Paste Magazine article profiling the best Christmas beers of the season, beers stretch a gamut of styles. Shiner Holiday Cheer is a dunkelweizen; Abite Christmas Ale, a brown ale; Southern Tier 2Xmas, a spiced beer; Samuel Adams White Christmas, a Belgian white; and Southern Tier Krampus, a lager.
It may not sound very romantic, but modern Christmas beers are really just the result of breweries wanting to lift traditionally sagging Christmas season beer sales. That was Fritz Maytag’ s philosophy at Anchor when the idea was first launched and has been the idea of every seasonal food producer before and since. Christmas beers are but one seasonal brew. You can now find spring ales, commemorative ales, and other limited edition brews.
Macrobrewers are even smitten with the idea in light of their own shrinking beer sales. Carlsberg stumbled upon the idea of a Christmas beer after they advertised their Tuborg pilsner in a special holiday commercial in 1980 and got an encouraging response. Since 1981, Carlsberg has annually released a Christmas Brew in the Danish market. The annual release is popular and has a name, J-Day, which falls on the first Friday in November every year . J-Day is now conventionally accepted as the day a brewery’s Christmas beer enters the market place.
A marketing stunt? Surely. But quite consistent with the rationale behind a modern international Christmas to go out and buy — and now drink – something new.