Session 106 is hosted by Jay Brooks this month. We are asked to consider the Holiday/Christmas/Kwanza etc. beer tradition, whether it has any specific meaning for us, and give examples of beers enjoyed as the Season approaches or other thoughts on the topic.
In many years of tasting beer, Christmas or holiday beer as a category has never made a real impression, and this is probably because the concept is and always was amorphous. It is true that references to a special beer at this part of the year are scattered in general and poetic literature. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, Christmas beer was something to be enjoyed along with other special things of the season: oranges, mince pie, roasted birds (goose), chestnuts roasted, and spiced beef, the delectable, scarlet-coloured round or brisket which is almost forgotten today even in England. (Out of sheer habit I think, a purveyor still makes some in a corner of Toronto, and I’ll write of this soon).
But that beer had no specific form or content other than possibly being stronger than the normal type, and often spiced. Spices were costly in the old days and it makes sense some sugar and spice went into the local ale to give it a festive touch. One old poem specifies that Christmas ale must not only be spiced, but also eaten with toast, the old English idea to immerse crispy bread in beer which made it a kind of gruel or soup.
When bitter beer – beer intended to keep – was laid down in March in Britain, it was considered best to broach it by Christmas of the same year. Some of the Christmas associations with beer in English tradition, at any rate, derive surely from that.
So all these ideas merged in the English conception of a Christmas-time beer: something strong, often spiced, something kept for a while to age and improve until opened with ceremony by paterfamilias at the Christmas table with hearth aglow.
Brewers in North America often put out a Christmas or Holiday beer with a nicely decorated label – more in the U.S. than Canada from what I can see. I used to buy these when I saw them on trips to the Northeast years ago. Most seemed not much different to the standard issue and any that weren’t were just a bit stronger or darker, no style ever emerged of a Xmas beer with its own characteristics. That was true in England too: Christmas ale has literary and social-historical resonance but you won’t find the recipe in the great Victorian brewing texts.
Under craft conditions in Ontario today, Great Lakes Brewing has a Winter Ale which one sees around this time on the shelves. It is on the strong side with a good spice character and exemplifies the English idea of a spiced holiday beer to the extent any firm idea of it exists.
This fine beer from Albion itself, Harvey’s Christmas Ale, also exemplifies a rich, spicy character although no spices are (I believe) actually added, the effect is from the malts and hops used, probably some brewing sugars as well.
It’s good that in a day when beers have been categorized to within an inch of their life, a fairly hazy notion endures about Christmas beer. Hazy suits the idea of a strongish ale sipped indolently at Christmas anyway.