This time of year, a visit to any beer aisle worth exploring confirms that we’ve reclaimed yet another piece of our beer heritage. You’ll see that winter and holiday seasonal brews have returned and en masse. Once the highlight of the year for beer lovers, the custom of drinking beer specially prepared for the holidays and cold months that follow was left for dead some 40 years ago. The wintertime practice had been scotched in America by the consolidation of the brewing industry and the downfall of regional brewing. But the proliferation of small breweries over the past three decades has led to a renewal of the tradition. Today we have a wider variety of holiday brews within reach than ever before.
Brewers have been making strong, hearty beers as a buffer to the biting cold of the season since the earliest days of brewing in Northern Europe. In Medieval England, these were dark ales made in celebration of Christmas and the New Year. Prior to the 1500s, these ales were most often brewed without hops, but with a generous seasoning of herbs and spices. Nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin, orange and honey were a few of the typical flavorings.
A drink known as “lambswool” was perhaps the archetypal Christmas ale of Middle Ages England. Named for its downy foam and warming effect, this was a strong ale heated in a pot along with roasted apples, sugar or honey, and spiced with nutmeg and ginger. From the pot it would be ladled into bowls and consumed piping hot at holiday gatherings. Lambswool was part of a broader spectrum of holiday gastronomy known as wassail.
An often-omitted refrain from a well-known Christmas carol gives us an indication of the heady spirit of the season. The celebrants who “Come A-wassailing” weren’t going door to door just to spread love and joy or to find an audience to sing to. These carolers came to get their mugs filled beer.
“Our wassail cup is made
Of the rosemary tree,
And so is your beer
Of the best barley.”
To “drink the wassail” was to imbibe Yuletide ale with friends and family. The word itself comes from the Old English “waes hall,” a toast meaning “be well” or “be of good health.” The wassail was especially associated with the Twelfth Night festival when partygoers would “quaff mighty bowls” of heated ale served with a piece of spiced toast floating on the surface. But as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, the heated holiday brews of England fell out of favor.
By the 1600s, hops had become an increasingly accepted ingredient in English beer. Earlier ales brewed without hops, and even those moderately hopped, became more luscious when mulled. The hopped beers did not. Warming the beer made its hop flavors harsh and astringent. The embrace of hops, of course, did not put an end to Christmas ale. Often referred to as Winter Warmers, the newer holiday beers were no longer warm, but they still showed the influence of their historical roots. They continued to be dark in color and were often characterized by the sweet malt flavor that had typified the older ales. You can still taste the earlier tradition in some of the Christmas beers produced by American craft brewers today.
The revival of holiday beers in America began in 1975 with the first release of Our Special Ale by Anchor Brewing. Produced each year by the San Francisco brewery, it’s a beer haunted by the ghost of Christmas ales past. Our Special Ale is a slightly stronger beer (most years it’s about 6 ABV) brewed with spices commonly used in holiday baking. The recipe changes from year to year and the brewery never reveals the ingredients. True to tradition, the beer is more of a theme than an iteration of any particular style. Such is the case with most Christmas beers.
If you go to your favorite tavern and request a Christmas or winter seasonal brew, there’s a good chance you won’t know what you’re getting until you have the beer in your mouth. Winter holiday beers are notoriously eclectic and range broadly in flavor, style and recipe. The Beer Judge Certification Program’s definition of a Christmas beer is the mostly vaguely worded description in its style guidelines. The entry is summed up with the shrug, “creativity is encouraged.” Loose as the standards may be, there are beers that have become benchmarks of the current American take on the tradition. One of these is Jubelale made by Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery.
First brewed in 1988, this year will be the first we’ll see Deschutes’ winter ale available in Wisconsin. Jubelale is a robust ale that’s just shy of 7% ABV. Dark and aromatic, the beer presents notes of raisin and chicory along with a dash of alcohol driven spiciness that suggests mulled wine. There’s a solid foundation of rich malt flavor supporting the beer’s equally assertive hop bitterness. That marriage of hops and spice is coming to be the indicator of the modern, American Christmas ale. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of brewers who take no interest in towing that particular line.
Sierra Nevada Brewing has created its own tradition with its holiday ale. The California brewery’s aptly named Celebration Ale was first produced in 1981. It’s a wintertime celebration of hops. The beer is brewed with copious amounts of the first selection of hops from the annual harvest. The beer is usually made within seven days of the cones being collected from the fields and dried. That may not have much of a holiday ring, but the beer is surprisingly evocative of the season. In the glass, Celebration Ale is a brilliant, ruddy red under a cap of tightly knit, snow-like foam. The aroma is even more suggestive. Brewed with chinook, centennial and cascade hops, Celebration Ale has an intense piney aroma that’s especially reminiscent of a freshly cut Christmas tree. It’s a rather unique way of referencing holiday traditions in a beer.
In Wisconsin, we have our own set of customs built around holiday seasonal beers. Winter beers have been made in Wisconsin since at least the 1850s, but the brewers who made Wisconsin into the beer state it became, didn’t take their cues from England. They were German immigrants. The beers of their homeland provided their influence.
The prototypical winter brews of Germany are cool-fermented lagers. They share in common with English winter ales a proclivity for being dark, malty and uncommonly strong. Known as Weihnachtsbier (pronounced vi-noxts-beer) or Christmas beer, these are beers brewed with freshly malted barley and the new hops of the autumn harvest. They are released to the public a month before Christmas. Ranging in color from deep gold to dark brown, these beers are known for their warming potency: usually in the neighborhood of 7-9% ABV. With an emphasis on malt, Weihnachtsbiers pair wonderfully with sweet dessert cakes and cookies.
The German beer tradition was introduced to Wisconsin by scores of German brewers who migrated here in the middle-to-late 19th century. The Christmas beer custom in Wisconsin found its greatest expression among the state’s many small breweries whose beer rarely travelled far from its home base. Breweries in Appleton, Fond du Lac, Oshkosh and Stevens Point all produced strong, holiday lagers.
With the onset of Prohibition in 1920 the tradition was interrupted. But Wisconsin brewers revived it just as soon as repeal arrived in 1933. Among its first beers after repeal, Stevens Point Brewery introduced a dark, Munich-style lager that had been aged for three months in anticipation of the Christmas season. Holiday seasonals were the most highly anticipated beers of the year in Wisconsin with beer lovers rushing to get their share of the goods. A 1955 advertisement for the holiday beer of the Oshkosh Brewing Company reminded its customers not to tarry. “Better act fast,” the ad concludes, “Chief Oshkosh Holiday Beer is a complete sell-out every single year.”
But by the 1970s, Wisconsin’s Christmas beer tradition had been crushed – along with most of the state’s small breweries – by the the rapacious practices of large shipping breweries such as Anheuser-Busch and Schlitz. Once again, though, there was a revival. This time the renewal was spearheaded by small, microbreweries. Two notable Wisconsin holiday beers that grew out of the 1980s microbrew movement are Sprecher Brewery’s Winter Brew and Lakefront Brewery’s Holiday Spice Lager Beer.
First brewed in 1986, Sprecher’s Winter Brew is a true Weihnachtsbier that recalls Wisconsin’s earlier Christmas beers. This is a dark, bock beer with a malty profile. The beer is aged at the brewery for two months prior to release. Brewed using four different malts, its sweet-caramel and roast-malt notes are prominent from the first sniff to the final draw. At 5.75% ABV, it’s slightly less potent than some holiday beers, yet it’s stout enough to take the chill off. Pair this with gingerbread cookies and you’ll immediately understand why these sorts of Christmas beers have such enduring appeal.
Lakefront Brewery’s Holiday Spice Lager Beer was introduced in 1992 and has been brewed every yule since. This is a beer that bridges traditions. At its core, Holiday Spice is a dark, German-style lager along the lines of a doppelbock. But the inclusions of honey and orange zest along with dashes of cinnamon and clove weave in flavors that were common to the English wassail of old. This is a massive beer. At 9.4% ABV, Holiday Spice is one of the strongest lagers on the market. It’s a wonderful companion on a cold winter night.
If there’s a holiday beer that might best epitomize the Wisconsin tradition, it may well be Stevens Point’s St. Benedict’s Winter Ale. The thing is, it’s not an ale at all. It’s a lager. Gabe Hopkins is the brewmaster at Steven Point Brewery. Last year, he reformulated the recipe for Point’s winter beer. “Now, it’s truly a lager beer,” says Hopkins who came to Point in 2011. “We changed it from a Belgian-style abbey to a bock. It’s still a slightly stronger beer, but it’s definitely sessionable.” The result is a full-bodied, coal-black brew with distinct chocolate and coffee notes. Less apparent is that the beer harkens back to the holiday lagers Steven Point was producing in the 1930s; right down to the hops.
St. Benedict’s Winter Ale is brewed with cluster, a hop that was ubiquitous in Wisconsin holiday lagers after the repeal of Prohibition. American craft brewers rarely use it today. “Right now in the beer world, cluster hops are not one of the pretty girls at the prom,” says Hopkins. He likes it anyway. “It’s an old stand by. It’s reliable and it works very well in this beer for balancing the malt flavor so that the beer isn’t overly sweet.”
Balance is becoming an increasingly rare find in the fevered world of craft beer. At this time of year, it’s especially welcome. It’s easy to forget that the renewal we’re now experiencing has its roots in much older customs. Gabe Hopkins gets that. Perhaps that’s why his winter beer is such a solid representation of the tradition he brews within. “These are beers that come to us from centuries of brewing that have been carried down over the years,” he says. Bear that in mind the next time you settle down with your holiday beer. Your experience will be enriched.
Lee Reiherzer drinks, brews and researches beer in Oshkosh. Visit his blog, Oshkosh Beer, at OshkoshBeer.Blogspot.com