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The Beers of Christmas!

05/07/2018

The brewing of holiday beers is a long-standing tradition. It provides an opportunity for limitless creativity by the addition of a variety of spices, herbs, fruits, and adjuncts. Use your imagination!

By Ben Jankowski

The last month on the calendar brings the winter solstice, and with it the end of the fall harvest, short days, and the arrival of wintry weather. It signals a period of religious celebration and the doorstep to the new year.

To most people, including brewers, December is a time of festivity. Beers not normally brewed during the year make an appearance during the holiday period. Many beer enthusiasts may not be aware that some form of holiday beer has been produced in the United States from colonial days to the present. Usually higher in gravity, in Europe these holiday beers may take the form of traditional styles such as Dunkels, Bocks, Weizenbocks and strong ales. In North America the microbrew revolution has produced a wider range of Christmas beers. Many creative commercial brewers include a variety of spices, herbs, fruits, and adjuncts. The key is to make festive beer, and do so with vigor.

Origins of Holiday Beers

For thousands of years, European peoples relied on the growing seasons as a measure of time. Traditionally, a calendar year ended when the sun was at its lowest point on the horizon. This point in time (normally December 21) also marked the ritual closing of the growing season and the beginning of a new year and a new growing season. In northern Europe, this period, known as the “yule,” was marked with festivities. During the reign of the emperor Constantine, the newfound Roman Christianity added the celebration of the birth of Christ to the party, blending the traditions.

During the Middle Ages, the ales brewed for the yuletide season were of greater strength for the occasion, in part as fortification against the cold. These brews were generally amber to brown in color, a result of the malting techniques of the period. Temperatures more conducive to brewing probably also resulted in low ester production from fermentation. These ales were most likely hopped, taking advantage of the fall harvest crop. It was also common to find other bittering agents present, such as berries or aromatic tree barks.

Revolutionary Spruce Porter

For five gallons:

10 lb

Two-row or six-row malt

1 lb

Crystal 60

½ lb

Crystal 120

½ lb

CaraMunich

¼ lb

Chocolate malt

¼ lb

Biscuit malt

¼ lb

Victory, or homemade toasted malt

¼ lb

Roasted barley

2 oz

Black patent malt

1 oz

Special B

¾ lb

Blackstrap molasses

½ oz

Bullion, Cluster, or Chinook hops (boil)

¼ oz

Cascade, Willamette, or Northern Brewer hops (flavor)

¼ lb

Spruce needles, pestle-broken, or spruce gum

1 tsp

Chalk

Wyeast #1084 (Irish) or #1337 (Alt)

O.G.

1.065

F.G.

1.018

Dough malt into 122 °F (50 °C) water and maintain at 122 °F (50 °C) for 20 minutes, followed by a rest at 156 °F (69 °C) for 40 minutes, then mash out at 168 °F (76 °C). Sparge with 170 °F (77 °C) water. Add chalk and molasses to kettle. Boil for 60 minutes; add boiling hops at the onset of the boil and flavoring hops 15 minutes into the boil.

In modern times, most European holiday beers continue to be of high gravity, but they lack the bittering agents of the earlier periods. This modern trend may be due in part to deference to the German Reinheitsgebot, which forbids adjuncts and spices. While it is still possible to get a fine holiday brew from Europe, chances are it will be a high-gravity beer lacking spices and adjuncts.

Colonial and Early American Holiday Beers

When the colonists arrived in America, they brought with them the tradition of brewing strong beers during the holiday season. When malt and hops were unavailable, they substituted molasses, maize, pumpkin, sassafras, and spruce. During the revolutionary period, strong beers — often referred to as old, strong, or stingo beers — were brewed in October for the winter season. Porters also became popular in the mid-Atlantic states. They too were of high gravity during the winter months, not only packed for greater sustenance but to prevent the beer from freezing in cellars.

Evidence indicates that the colonists also brewed spice ale, but it is unclear whether it was made during Christmas. Dorchester Ale, for example, contained ginger and cinnamon (1), and there is vague reference to Tauton Ale with spice.

Nineteenth and Early 20th Century Holiday Beers

The introduction of lager beer in America and the influx of immigrants from Germany and Central Europe brought strong holiday lagers to American consumers by the 1860s. These were usually Dunkels or Bocks, and they eclipsed the earlier traditional herb and spiced ales. Though some breweries did continue the tradition of using spice in lager beer, it was more the exception than the rule. George Fix documents the production of lager beer using juniper berries at the Straub Brewery in Pennsylvania (2), but it is unclear whether this beer was brewed during the holiday season.

The period from the 1890s to the eve of Prohibition was the heyday of American Christmas beers. The majority of commercial breweries offered their own version of this specialty beer. But the Volstead Act eradicated these beers overnight. After Repeal and through the early 1950s, however, many brewers revived their holiday beers. Notable among them were a Dunkel from Piels (of the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York), Christmas from Columbia Breweries Inc. (Tacoma, Washington), Christmas Special by Miller Brewing (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), X-Mas Bru by the Falls City Brewing Co. (Louisville, Kentucky) (3), and Heidelberg Holiday Beer from South Bethlehem Brewing Co. (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania).

The one continuously brewed Christmas beer in North America belongs to the Moctezuma Brewery of Orizaba, Mexico. Noche Buena made its first appearance in 1924 and has been produced, first privately, then publicly, ever since. (The beer can usually be found in West Coast markets.)

Private (and Not-So-Private) Stocks

By the mid-1950s, many Christmas beers were discontinued in what can be termed “product rationalization for mass appeal.” However, large breweries continued to brew holiday beers for private consumption.

Perhaps the most famous of these was Ballantine’s Burton Christmas Ale. Known to be brewed after Prohibition, these high-gravity ales were matured in wooden casks for 14 years before being bottled. Friends of the brewery (including none other than President Harry Truman [4]) would receive the bottles with their names on the label.

According to beer author Alan Eames, the beer is protected with cork inside the crown. The color is dark copper, with a thin layer of yeast sediment. “The taste is highly alcoholic, but [with] sweet cloyness from the malt,” Eames said. “It is mellow and mature.” Eames rates this ale among the top five beers in the world he has ever tasted. Today, these beers command a high price at auctions and are sought after for their value.

Holly Jolly Christmas Beer

For five gallons:

10 lb

Two-row malt

1 lb

Rye malt

11 oz

Cara-Vienne

½ lb

Crystal 20

½

Wheat malt

1 lb

Vermont pure maple syrup

½ tsp

Nutmeg

½ tsp

Cloves

½ tsp

Cinnamon

½ tsp

Ginger

½ tsp

Allspice

½ tsp

Star anise

½ tsp

Orange peel

½ tsp

Lemon peel

½ tsp

Jerk powder

⅝ oz

Sam Adams Hallertauer Mittelfrüh (boil, 60 min)

¼ oz

Sam Adams Hallertauer Mittelfrüh (boil, 45 min)

 oz

Sam Adams Hallertauer Mittelfrüh (flavor, 10 min)

Wyeast #2007

O.G.

1.068

F.G.

1.016

Dough in malt for protein rest at 100 °F (38°C) and hold at that temperature for 10 minutes, followed by a rest at 122 °F (50°C) for 10 minutes, then 157 °F (69 °C) for 40 minutes. Mash out at 170 °F (77 °C). Add maple syrup and spices to the kettle. Primary fermentation for seven days; lager for four to six weeks.

One privately made Christmas beer has gone public. Coors had produced holiday Bocks shortly after Prohibition, then ceased production for more than 50 years. In 1983, brewmaster Finn Knudsen revived the tradition by using the pilot plant to brew a holiday beer for the Coors family. In 1986, the company released a limited amount of holiday beer to employees and distributors in Colorado. Demand for the product outstripped supply, and the beer was sold out by Christmas. Coors Winterfest was released in 1987 for national distribution and has been acclaimed as a dark version of the Dreher Vienna (5).

Anheuser-Busch also produced holiday beers, but for the bulk of this century they’ve been brewed for employees only. Recent offerings produced at their pilot plant have included a Vienna, a golden lager, a Dunkel, and a stout. But by the time you read this, Anheuser-Busch will be distributing across the country a beer called Christmas Beer (scheduled for release November 1). According to the company, this lager beer will be of the style Adolphus Busch brewed at the turn of the century and will sport a historic Christmas label.

A Craft-Filled Christmas

By the early 1970s, little holiday beer was available in the United States, with the exception of the limited availability of Noche Buena. The tradition of holiday beers was rekindled in 1975, however, when Fritz Maytag’s Anchor Brewing Co. introduced Our Special Ale. Inspired by the ancient custom of brewing for special occasions, the first Out Special Ale also revived the dry-hopping tradition. At 16.5 °P, this was truly an innovative beer for its time. The original offering was brewed according to Reinheitsgebot requirements (6). Released on Thanksgiving, the ale became so much in demand that Anchor released the original recipe as a regular product and named it Liberty Ale. Subsequent years have seen Our Special Ale produced as brown ales (1983–1986) and spiced ales (1987–present) in what Anchor terms a traditional “Wassil,” reviving not only a medieval English tradition, but also an early American tradition of spiced beers.

Sierra Nevada is another company with a national following for its holiday product. Its Celebration Ale was created at the outset of the microbrewing revolution (1982). “Part of the term ‘Celebration’ is for celebration of the hop harvest,” explains Steve Harrison, national sales director. “We wanted to do a dry-hopped ale with the freshly harvested Cascades so as to have a high oil content.” Brewer and owner Ken Grossman certainly achieved his mark with a merry orange brew that gives new meaning to the term hopheads.

Many other Christmas beers have been offered both nationally and regionally over the past five years. A number of products are distributed as early as the end of October. Some nationally distributed beers include Pete’s Wicked Winter Brew, Sam Adams Winter Lager, and Grant’s Spiced Ale. Regional favorites include Redhook’s Winterhook, Thomas Kemper’s Holiday Bock, and Mendocino’s Yuletide Porter. Offerings from the Midwest include Sprecher’s Winter Brew and Bells Old Ale. In the East, Brooklyn Brewing’s Black Chocolate Stout makes an appearance in late October, and others include Geary’s Winter Ale and New England’s Spiced Ale. Almost any brewpub will have a holiday offering, and there are no boundaries as to what might be in it.

Brewing for the Holidays

Producing a Christmas beer these days can be a fascinating adventure, whether at home or in the commercial brewery, with options that include almost any malt, adjunct, spice, fruit, or plant. The key is to brew festive.

Brewing a holiday beer with berries would certainly be appropriate; blueberries, gooseberries, juniper berries, and loganberries would all produce tart and historically authentic beers. The addition of sugars in the kettle is also appropriate; Rock Candy, brown sugar, treacle, and maple syrup were all known in the beers of Christmas past. And any spice on the spice rack is worth a try — just be warned that a little spice can go a long way.

Because combining different cultures is at the heart of American tradition, I provide two sample recipes, one for ales and one for lagers. By no means should the brewer be bound to the formulations; they are merely a starting point for one’s creativity. The porter formulation combines the colonial tradition of adding spruce and molasses with the higher gravity porter that George Washington might have consumed. The Holly Jolly lager formulation combines the dryness of rye malt and the attenuation of maple syrup to enhance the hops and spices; it placed third in the herb beer category at the 1995 HWBTA national competition. But again, anything can be used. It’s up to you!

Create a new tradition in your household with a seasonal brew. Santa will certainly enjoy the cookies more if you leave him a festive holiday beer. Who knows? He might even leave you new platinum brewing equipment.

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