The Origin of the Christmas Beer
Beer School begins at 26:35
We’ve all heard or seen the line, “It’s the most wonderful time for a beer.” It’s on ugly sweaters, koozies, and cheesy holiday cards every year. But why and how did Christmas time become the most wonderful time for a beer? Well, it can all be traced back to the Vikings.
What is a Christmas Beer?
Before we unwrap this topic, pun intended, we should cover what makes a beer a Christmas beer? There really is no set recipe or guideline, so at the end of the day if the label says it’s a Christmas beer, it’s a Christmas beer. However, Christmas beers tend to be ales, as opposed to lagers. All beers are either ales or lagers, but that’s a whole other month of beer schools right there. Traditional Christmas beer also tends to be dark and malty and often flavored with spices or herbs. This is similar to Winter Warmers, which Christmas beers are often labeled as. Coriander, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, are just a few of many spices that can be added.
Now back to Vikings! Vikings are basically pirates from parts of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Before Christmas was introduced to many cultures, the Vikings would drink strong barley-based beer in the winter. They would also offer this beer up to Odin, and the other Norse Gods, in hopes that the Gods would then bring back the warm summer weather. This celebration was called Jul. Jul today translates to Christmas.
I’m sure many of you have heard the story that 8 pound 6 ounce baby Jesus was not born on December 25th. This date was chosen as a way to introduce Christianity to other cultures by combining Christmas with the winter solstice pagan traditions. This story is about as common as the IPA origin story, and there’s always someone eager to mention it. But, what better way to get other cultures to celebrate baby Jesus than through beer?
900 AD is when the Vikings were getting their Jul parties on. Then King Haakon the Good came into rule and began to use this Jul celebration to introduce Christianity to the Norwegians. So he combined the pagan holiday of Jul with the Christmas celebration by creating a law that you had to celebrate Christmas with beer! Fines were issued for those who did not comply. This is no longer the law in Norway, but brewers all over Norway still love to brew juleol, which means drink Christmas.
By the next century, Norway was a Christian country. The law continued on after King Haakon. The Gulating Laws were then implemented stating that each household had to brew a beer for the holiday, and “bless it Christmas night in thanks to Christ and St. Mary.” The best grains had to be used, and if you could brew the best beer, your rank in status increased. That is when many spices and herbs started to get thrown in with that darker malty beer to improve flavor and popularity.
The Danes & Their Christmas Beer
This Viking tradition spread to cultures all over the world. If they celebrate Christmas, they’re most likely brewing a Christmas Ale. However, Denmark may win for doing it the best. I may be biased, as I am a Dane, and can actually trace my lineage to Denmark, but… it’s still true.
For thirty years now (2020 excluded) the Danes have kicked off the holiday season on the first Friday in November at 8:59PM, with Julebrygsdag, or J-Dag (J-Day). Julebryg beer (or Ol in Danish) is released that day from Tuborg Brewery, which is now part of Carlsberg Brewery. Tuborg employees drive around to bars, dressed as blue elves, and give out free beer and swag. It used to be on a Wednesday, but too many kids weren’t showing up for school the next day. The drinking age for beer there is 16.
We also can’t forget they are the home of Mikkeller, so you know they got the good stuff too. Not just the commercial blue elves.
Christmas Beer in America
Before we wrap up, pun intended, we should cover Christmas beer in America. During the 17th century, North America was introduced to this Christmas beer tradition though the Swedes. Unfortunately, Prohibition then caused a bit of a decades long hiatus on Christmas beer being brewed in the states. For most of the 20th century if it wasn’t a watered down pale American lager, it probably wasn’t getting brewed here. Enter Anchor Brewing! In 1975 they brought back the Christmas Ale to America and called it, “Our Special Ale.”
Now just about every brewery in America has a Christmas Ale or Winter Warmer. Each Christmas, Anchor has tweaked the recipe, and kept it secret. This year it is actually a brown ale. The hand drawn label is different every year as well. At the brewery they have a gorgeous display case of their Christmas bottles through the years. They have used the same artist every year since 1975, except once! They obviously regretted that, because it was only once a long time ago. Because 2020 is 2020… and we need some extra Christmas magic, this year the label has 3 pines on it to represent joy, hope, and flowering. The next few years have already been drawn, so if the artist passes before then, his art will continue on for a bit longer.
We also have Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Prairie, and countless other breweries making annual holiday beers, and not following the traditional Winter Warmer guidelines. I recently had a Christmas sour from Prairie. It seemed crazy, but it worked. So, like I said before, if it says it’s a Christmas beer, it is. I love the holiday IPAs and those peppermint porters are like chocolate candy canes in a glass.
In conclusion! It’s not Christmas until I’ve opened a Christmas Ale, and Hans Gruber has fallen off the Nakatomi Tower. So, this holiday season, make sure to do as the Vikings did, and enjoy some festive ale! Merry Christmas! Glædelig Jul! Skaal!
- Beer and Brewing – Anchor interview
- Denmark J-Day
- http://Vikings – Ancient History Encyclopedia
- Christmas in Norway
- Serious Eats Christmas Beer and Winter Warmer
- Vinepair – Christmas Ale and Vikings