We’ve started hitting sub-zero weather this month, and it’s changed my drinking habits accordingly. Now is the time my beer fridge starts filling up with “winter warmers”. These are seasonal beers, designed specifically to warm your insides when the outside is cold and dark. To meet the mood, these beers are usually darker in colour with a rich, malty backbone and hints of plum, raisin, molasses or spice. And now that we’re looking down the barrel at December, “Christmas Ales” or “Holiday Beers” also present themselves. These generally fall in the “winter warmer” category but are less defined by style (much to the chagrin of the Beer Judge Certification Program). Christmas or Holiday beers can be light or dark, hoppy or roasty, but most often contain some of the spices reminiscent of the Christmas season…think gingerbread cookies, evergreen trees, or mulling spices.
In my last post I talked about Oktoberfest beers. The appearance of these festival beers tends to mark the official transition from summer to fall. Seasonal beers are rooted in a connection to the time of year, driven by temperature and accessibility to seasonal ingredients, and/or the desire to celebrate something special, like a wedding or festival. It’s a centuries-old practice. Before Pope Julius I decided back in 336 A.D. that December 25th was Christ’s birthday, the Romans were celebrating the birth of Sol Invictus, the “Invincible Sun”, provider of light and warmth in a cold, dark world. On the occasion of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, what better way to celebrate the re-birth of the sacred Sun than to dance and be merry while drinking a sacred brew made of the finest grains and flavoured with the highest quality spices and herbs?
The excessive indulgences of rowdy Romans during the winter solstice was eventually replaced by the holy day of Christmas. However, December beer continued to be a sacred drink. In Norway, where many Christmas beer traditions began, farmers brewed “yule ale”. If it wasn’t strong enough, workers were said to cast a spell on the farmer’s land. Belgian monasteries produced Prima Melior (their breweries best of the best). The Brits were so kind as to break the drudgery inside their 19th century workhouses by offering free Christmas Ale to their residents. (and to this day make some very fine barley wines). The Germans continue to brew a bock-styled “Christmas beer”. On St. Nicholas Day, the Austrians make a triple bock called “Samichlaus”.
Whether they’re called Christmas ales or the more politically correct “Holiday beers”, the idea is the same. It’s not a particular style of beer…it’s more of a tradition. A special beer, made with special ingredients, to celebrate a special event of the season. And in this particular season, what a better way to appreciate the craftsmanship and unique flavour profiles of your local brewery than by sampling one of their seasonal releases? Give the gift of beer…after all, isn’t giving what this season is all about?
Check out the Saltbox Brewery’s Christmas pack. It includes a signature beer glass along with a can of Balsam Blue (a light ale made with local blueberries and the tips of balsam fir trees) and a can of Scotch Ale (a malty amber ale made with the warm, smoky flavour of peat). These two limited release brews make a nice gift for your curious beer loving friend or relative.