Christmas Ale O’er the Sea

As I discussed recently, in 1857-1860 Hallett & Abbey advertised their Christmas Ale in Brighton, England.

A few years later the Hole-in-the-Wall saloon (HITW) located in Sprague’s Alley off Fulton Street in Brooklyn, New York, did something similar. Ads in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle between 1865 and 1867 trumpeted that “Thomas” would “broach” his Christmas Ale.

A string of ads may be viewed, here, of which this one was typical (via the Brooklyn Daily Eagle archive):



The Cadman Plaza park covers today the street where saloon-keeper Thomas ministered to his faithful. The Forgotten New York historical website sets out additional background in a  blogpost from 2001.

The photo below via Wikipedia showed land being assembled for the park in 1936. One of the crosswise roads or paths in the image likely traced the alley where HITW was located.



Its earthy name – unpretentious understates it – was probably inspired by English example. A pub of that name was (is still) located at a railway arch next to Waterloo Station, London. Advertisements for HITW stated “the London papers”, could be read, a further clue to its character.

As in Britain, it wasn’t common then in the United States to brand a beer Christmas Ale. The occasional instance did make express the old connection between ale and the Yule period. Christmas Ale was brewed traditionally in England on December 21 and typically consumed in December and January, as I showed yesterday.

Before 1980, some American breweries did advertise a Christmas Beer, here and there. In 2016 Judy Steffes of the Washington County Insider recalled the mid-century Lithia Christmas Beer, in Wisconsin.

But paging through James Robertson’s 1978 The Great American Beer Book I could not find a single example of a Christmas beer, American or other. He did include a Holiday Beer from Potosi, Wisconsin but the brewery’s name was Holiday Brewing.

The few Christmas beers then were probably a standard beer in the inventory, maybe made a little stronger or darker. Lithia Christmas Beer in fact came in a special dark version, as Steffes mentioned.

Breweries might also advertise their regular line around Christmas, linking them to festivity, just as ale in Britain was always linked to Yuletime. This was enhanced advertising for normal brands, not Christmas beer as such.

Thomas of 1860s Brooklyn seemed quite the man, judging by his monikers “Immortal Thomas” and “presiding genius”. As ancestrally for the bar trade, a no doubt ebullient personality lent the house its character, drew in the crowds. Thomas may well have been British- or Irish-born, as were many barkeeps of the period.

Jones Brewery in New York advertised its English-style beers just below some of these HITW ads. That brewery was located on Sixth Street in Manhattan. In fact it likely supplied Thomas’ Christmas Ale.

As well, Jones probably paid for both ads to appear: a hand-in-glove arrangement. Thomas’ Christmas Ale was advertised in December and January mainly, sometimes in February, and (skipping March) even in April. Why April is hard to say, maybe Thomas held back a keg to be opened later for an unexpected treat, or made hay then of excess inventory.

Maybe he did an April release to parry the growing springtime appeal of German bock beer in New York.

As Thomas’ ads for Christmas Ale mainly appeared in December and January, this ties in further to an English inspiration for his and (likely) Jones’ beer.

In fact, December 21 was St. Thomas Day in the old Catholic calendar. How strange, yet apt in a way, that a namesake well over the sea, in Walt Whitman’s America, served a specialty of Christmas Ale.

Note re images: Images above were sourced from the links identified and stated in text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.



5 thoughts on “Christmas Ale O’er the Sea”

  1. This post from Boak and Bailey talks about the history of Christmas ales:

    He notes that Anchor had a spiced Christmas Ale in 1975 and Charles Wells had a Christmas Ale too, but suggests the specific branding of ales as “Christmas” took off later than that.

    Which seems to fit in with your point here that references exist for a long time, but the connection was fairly casual.

    • Thanks for this. Since especially the onset of craft, a number of articles, and at least one book, have been written on the topic. I may have read B&B’s piece years ago, and good to know our conclusions broadly accord on the branding aspect.

      In my current posts I was mainly concerned to find early (1800s-era) Christmas ale brandings, in the U.K. and North America.


      • Keith, if you are still reading, I had the chance to look at the B&B link, I had read it years back because I contributed a comment to it. They link to other discussions, including by R. Pattinson.

        As I mentioned in the first reply, there have been numerous articles in recent decades, including in the American beer press, AAB and similar. Plus a book as I mentioned, I haven’t read it, but saw reference to it on Google Books. I can find name if you don’t know it.

        I think my summary of the more recent situation is largely in accord with their views, however 1857 precedes any of their citations, as far as I can tell. So insofar as 1800s citations go, the Hallett & Abbey Christmas Ale I discuss in this string of posts, appears to be the earliest so far, branded that is. Also, the fact of St. Thomas Day (December 21) being a brewing day and the Messedag have not been referenced earlier in beer historical study, to my knowledge, fwiw.

        My reference to the Belgian and French Xmas Ales, Navy, Campbell’s, and the rest is more a matter of impression, that those places seemed to rely on Xmas branding inter- and especially postwar more than elsewhere and it helped stimulate the craft practice, along with Anchor’s example.

        • Thanks for the additional info. I think you were right in the previous post that it wasn’t exactly a straight line to the 1857 ale but there was a connection. I think the tap root analogy is apt for a lot of language, with lots of hidden branching underground. The surface manifestation may die back periodically, but then spring back to view from the underlying concept, although maybe in a somewhat modified form.


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