Craft Beer Scene Around Rockford: The history of Christmas beer

By Michael Sears
President, Forest City Brewers

Greetings, all.

As I walked from the car to the house last week, a couple of things swirled in my mind like the brisk, cold wind. My first thought was, “Good Lord, it’s cold for this time of year.” My next thought was, “Some of the neighbors have their Christmas decorations up, and it’s not even Thanksgiving yet!” My final thought as I opened the front door and braced for our household canine greeting party was, “With the freezing cold and premature lights, it’s time to start reviewing Christmas beers.” Ahh, a silver lining!

Nothing suggests Christmas like freezing temperatures, some snow on the ground, house exteriors aglow in beautiful lights, and tasty Christmas beers. But what exactly is a Christmas beer? You may think they are simply a marketing scheme to sell beer with Christmasy labels. So, I decided to do some research and have uncovered some interesting facts about Christmas beers. So, grab a brew and huddle up to the fire and let me tell you some things about Christmas beer.

Christmas beer actually started in the Scandinavian countries hundreds of years ago. Around mid-December, they would begin a long celebration for Jolner (pronounced Yolner), which was one of the names for their god, Thor. I prefer Thor much more than Jolner, and I’m pretty sure I would not have read a comic book with Jolner as the main character (HA!). Anyway, in November, the Scandinavians would begin making a stronger beer for the festival. They called this beer Julöl. Move forward several hundred years to England. You may or may not know this fact, but many English were of Viking descent from the days when the Norsemen traveled the seas in search of new lands and raiding. These descendants of the Vikings couldn’t speak Scandinavian very well, so the word Julöl became Yul al. As more time passed, it eventually became Yule Ale. And since the “Yule” season coincided with Christmas, it quickly was known as Christmas Ale.

This tradition made its way into the American colonies. Here is an excerpt from a book published in 1854: “In New York, and also in some other of the middle colonies, it was customary before the revolution, to have brewed a sufficient time before the holyday season to give it due age and strength, a large quantity of what they called ‘right strong Christmas beer.’”

Christmas beer typically reminds one of Christmas cookies, gingerbread, English-type Christmas pudding, spruce trees, mulling spices, or any combination of these aromatics that suggests the holiday season. The base beer often has a malty profile that supports the balance of the aromatics from spices and other special ingredients. Fermentables, such as honey, molasses, maple syrup, etc., can also contribute their own unique flavors. Hop aroma is often absent, subdued or slightly spicy. A fruit character (often of dried citrus peel or dried fruit, such as raisins or plums) is also acceptable. Alcohol warmth may be found in some examples, but should be restrained. The overall aroma should be balanced, fairly complex and inviting.

The idea of strong beer for Christmas has been around for a long time. I will take the next few weeks up until Christmas to highlight a few of these truly seasonal beers. Well, then, all this research has made me quite thirsty, so I’m off to have me another right strong Christmas beer.

Prost!

Michael Sears is the president of the Forest City Brewers. The Forest City Brewers is a home-brewing club dedicated to the art of finely-crafted beer. The club meets on the first Wednesday of each month at Thunder Bay Grille on East State Street. For more about Forest City Brewers, go to http://forestcitybrewers.org. If you have comments or recommendations, please contact Mike at rockfordcraftbeer@comcast.net.

From the Dec. 3-9, 2014, issue

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