Christmas beers, or for those from a less religiously inclined place, festive beers — have been brewed for centuries.
The BCJP even has a definition for a Christmas beer: a stronger, darker, spiced beer that often has a rich body and warming finish suggesting a good accompaniment for the cold winter season.
However, the style guideline’s northern hemisphere bias is apparent here as these Christmas beers are also called “winter speciality spiced” beers. The BJCP need to get out more and have a summer Christmas Downunder, I reckon.
The idea of festive beers appears to start with Vikings who made winter beers during “Jul” — also known as “Yule” — as a way of honouring their gods during the winter solstice. When Christianity, and Christmas, arrived a millennium ago, the tradition continued.
Scandinavians are credited with exporting their yuletide festivity to England, in the form of Wassail — the medieval custom involving the consumption of a hot ale. The word is derived from the Old Norse “ves heill” and Old English “wes hal” — meaning “be of good health” or “be of good fortune.”
Scandinavian migrants later took their dark and malty Christmas beers to the United States in the 18th century.
Strangely, as I researched this, I learned that Stella Artois, the famous Belgian lager was first created as Christmas beer in 1926 by Brouwerij Artois. Which, when you think of it — with the star and all — makes sense. But it was also a lager variation on what was then a recently-established Belgian practice of drinking English-style Scotch Ales at Christmas that started around the turn of the century.
(As an aside, it’s interesting how history gets rewritten by marketers — in 1988 when Brouwerij Artois became a founding member in the merger creating Interbrew — later AB InBev — the 1926 bottle label inspired the brand redesign, which also incorporated the horn symbol and the 1366 date of the original Den Hoorn brewery. Basically, it allows AB InBev to infer the star has been around 1366!)
In more modern terms, San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing released Our Special Ale for Christmas in 1975, a dark spiced ale that changed from year to year.
So, with both Stella Artois and dark, rich, malty ales in mind, here are 10 festive beers for this upcoming season:
Small Gods have a beautifully-designed Christmas trio based on the three wise men:
Balthazar Chocolate Rum Ball Imperial Stout 9.8%
Seven different grains and lashings of molasses were boiled for four hours to create a viscous and unctuous body. Dark rum, cocoa, and vanilla were added along with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves to emulate a spiced rum chocolate truffle.
Gaspar Figgy Pudding Oatwine 9.7%
Four different varieties of oats complemented a grist heavy in caramel malts. House-made fig puree and golden syrup were added, to create a smooth, soft beer with characters of dried fruit, sticky toffee and dark treacle.
Melchior Sticky Date Belgian Quadrupel 9.6%
In place of the usual candi sugar they have loaded this beer with pails of gooey date syrup to add a rich dark fruit note. The result is a complex, fruity and lightly spiced Belgian ale with a warming boozy finish.
Garage Project also have a couple of Christmas celebratory beers.
Garage Project x Trillium Soufflè Stout 12.4%
This vanilla, coffee & chocolate imperial dessert stout is part of the Home and Away Series of collaborations. It delivers luscious layers of vanilla gelato, burnt marshmallow, chewy dried fruits and mocha latté. Released December 5.
Garage Project Pud 7.5%
Pud is designed to be the merriest of Merry Christmas stouts. Brewed with six malts, lashings of real fruit mince and double-fold vanilla. In true Christmas fashion let the belt out a few notches and enjoy the feast. Released December 12.
Sawmill Super Saison 8%
A semi-traditional saison brewed with heaps of grains other than barley — rye, wheat, flaked barley all contribute body and mouthfeel, in addition to a certain rusticity that is key in the style. Highly-hopped with European varieties and fermented with a characterful Saison yeast blend.
Sprig + Fern Norty Porter 5%
One of the best beers released this year by Sprig + Fern, the super-chocolately Norty Porter was so popular it’s been specially rebrewed for a Christmas treat — have it on hand when you need another chocolate.
Urbanaut Roserita Strawberry Pavlova Hazy 5.7%
Brewed with the relatively new Hüll Melon hops (think strawberry and honeydew melon) and Cryo Hops as well as vanilla and icing sugar this is smooth, creamy and sweet with a berry tang and a Christmas cheer.
Behemoth Your Favourite Holiday Movie 4-pack 4.5%-8%
With multiple references to that perennially debated “is it a Christmas movie?” Behemoth has an inimitable tribute to Die Hard, with each can featuring a different aspect of the Bruce Willis classic.