Traditionally BUZZED

December 7, 2016
2 mins read

Tradition is a recurring theme in the brewing industry and the holiday season is arguably the most traditional of all seasons. Many cultures attribute particular importance to the weeks surrounding the winter solstice; accordingly, the holidays are often celebrated with beer, dark, strong beer.

Perhaps the earliest of these celebrations was the Scandinavian Jul, or Yule festivities, which began on December 21. Vikings would offer up flagons of beer to Norse gods Odin, Frey and others in thanks for an abundant year and to ensure an equally plentiful coming year. The beer brewed by the Vikings was strong, malty and likely flavored with local herbs and spices like heather flowers, juniper berries, yarrow and hops. The alcohol content was likely around 9 to 10 percent.

When Christianity replaced paganism under Norway’s King Haakon I (“The Good”), Jul became Kristmesse celebrated on December 25. Haakon decreed each household must brew enough strong beer for the celebration. Later, in the 13th century, laws were passed that required peasants to not only brew beer for the celebration, but to hold some sort of party to celebrate. Failure to comply could result in fines and even loss of property.

In England, the tradition of Christmas ales has roots in the custom of wassailing. Legend tells of Rowena, a young, beautiful Saxon maiden who seduced King Vortigern by toasting his health with a goblet of spiced wine and saying, “Waes hael!” Wassailing later came to mean singing for Christmas treats and was traditionally done on Twelfth Night, the evening of January 5, the date Christianity associates with Magi visiting the newborn Jesus Christ. On this night, peasants would sing in front of the feudal lord’s home for figgy pudding and a wassail drink, sometimes made of strong hard cider or dark, strong ales.

The actual drink known as wassail varied from location to location, but a popular one was known as “Lambs Wool.” The recipe consisted of hot ale, roasted crab apples, sugar, spices, eggs and cream.

Like the Vikings, the English added herbs and spices to beer to boost the flavor. Unlike their northern neighbors, the Brits did not add the spices during brewing, only after. Adding spices to the warmed beer eventually gave way over the years to including spices in the brewing process. Through a combination of the Viking tradition of brewing strong, dark ales during the Christmas season and the British tradition of adding spices, winter warmers – so named for the high alcohol content’s warming properties – were born. Today winter warmers and Christmas ales include many spices and flavors ranging from gingerbread to cranberry.

Try these holiday season brews to put you in the yuletide spirit:

Anderson Valley Brewing Company Winter Solstice
On the lighter side of Winter Warmers, this brew weighs in at 6.9 percent. The flavor is full-on jolly holiday with sweet malts and a proprietary blend of spices.

21st Amendment Brewery Fireside Chat
Brewed with spices and cocoa nibs, this 7.9 percent spiced ale is sure to warm you up on the insides while satisfying your holiday sweets cravings.

Nøgne Ø Winter Ale
Perhaps the most authentic Christmas ale on my list, this ale is brewed in Norway with the traditional style in mind. Thick with sweet caramel, chocolate and coffee flavors, this dark ale boasts an ABV of 8.5 percent.

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