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Session #10: Winter Beers

This month’s Session, sponsored by Barley Vine, is Let It Snow: Winter Beers. Of all the seasonal beers, the ones released during winter are my favorites; the ones I look most forward to sampling each and every year. The category of winter beers lacks the tradition of, say for example, oktoberfest beers or springfest beers, both of which owe their existence to the seasons, a lack of technology and brewers having to adapt themselves to the weather. And, of course, even calling them winter beers is a modern conceit to be politically correct and, perhaps more importantly, to try to insure they will continue to sell beyond December 25. Because for the most part, whether we say so or not, most of the “winter beers” are really Christmas beers. And they are, like Christmas itself, largely a modern invention.

For centuries, the most important Christian holiday was Easter, because — as I remember it being explained — the redemption and resurrection it represented was the miracle that made Christianity different from other religions and so it was the centerpiece of an ecumenical year filled with celebrations Sunday after Sunday. Our present calendar system, the Gregorian calendar (named for Pope Gregory) was created precisely to more accurately predict the date when each year’s Easter would be because under the prior system, the Julian calendar (which is still used today by some Christian denominations) had allowed the year to drift by several days because it did not accurately reflect the true length of a year. (For a riveting account of the history of our calendar, read David Ewing Duncan’s Calendar: Humanity’s Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year.) The calendar geek in me could go on and on about this but the point is simply that for the majority of Christian history, Easter was the big day. Beginning in the 1840s, things gradually shifted toward Christmas so that now most people would say Christmas is the number one holiday.

The first Christmas beers were most likely brewed in medieval times by monks making a special beer — and stronger — at Christmastime to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But it would take far longer for commercial breweries to begin making and bottling seasonal beer. And while there were breweries in decades past that made a holiday beer (I have, for example a full bottle of Ballantine Christmas Ale that was brewed in 1946 but not bottled until 1957), it was not the big business it is today. In my experience, here in the U.S. Christmas beers were more the exception than the rule until somewhat recently.

Germany has a rich tradition of Weihnachtsbier, as do several other Scandinavian countries. So does Great Britain with winter warmers and Belgium with beers like Delirium Noel and many others. My friend and colleague Don Russell (a.k.a. Joe Sixpack) is currently working on a book about Christmas beer which will be published next year. I can’t wait for it to come out, it should be a very interesting read.

For a time, there were only a few holiday beers, and most of them were quite obviously Christmas beers. Sierra Nevada’s Celebration, Samuel Adams’ Winter Lager and even Noche Buena (from Mexico’s Grupo Model) were all early favorites. Little by little, more breweries began making a holiday beer and by around 1996 practically every brewery made one and a large number bottled it, too. And they all sold pretty well. But oddly enough, the day after Christmas sales would abruptly stop. With the exception of the most popular two or three brands, you could barely give away a Christmas beer once the holiday was over. This made it tricky for retailers trying to balance not running out before Christmas but not wanting any inventory immediately thereafter. When I was a beer buyer, I can’t tell you how many offers at rock bottom bargain prices I would get in the weeks after Christmas by breweries trying to unload their remaining Christmas beer.

So what most breweries did was secularize the beers, calling them names like winter ale or holiday beer. Whatever the name, it de-emphasized Christmas in the hope that the fickle consumer would continue to buy them after December 25. And for the most part the strategy worked and eventually led to many breweries having a seasonal beer year-round, whether four different ones quarterly or more often. The reason for this is more business-related than you might assume at first blush. Most grocery stores have very specific beer sets (which is a schematic layout of what beers they carry and where they will be put on the shelves).

Breweries work very hard to get a slot on a grocery store’s beer set. No one wants to put in the effort to get their Christmas beer in the beer set over the holidays only to lose it as soon December ends. So what many did was get a seasonal sku authorized in the set that would be filled with whatever the seasonal beer happened to be. In other words, the same hole would be filled in summer with a summer seasonal beer, etc. throughout the year. One seasonal release would follow the last so that all year long there would be a rotating beer in that same slot on the store shelf. In that way the brewery would not lose it’s spot on the shelf and as a result, today we all have much more diversity on the shelf, a boon for consumers and breweries alike. Nielsen and IRI data confirms that the category “seasonal beer” is one of the fastest growing and best-selling categories of craft beer today. And this all grew out of Christmas beers and trying to figure out how best to sell them.

In modern times, one of the first and to my mind still one of the best is Anchor’s Christmas Beer. Technically, the name of this beer is not Christmas Ale as it is usually called but it’s more proper name is actually Our Special Ale. The first one was brewed in 1975. While there are certainly many other truly great holiday beers, this is always the one I look most forward to each year. It used to be released the Monday before Thanksgiving each year, making it one of the last Christmas beers to come out. A few years ago they bowed to market pressure and it’s now available in early November, usually the first week. I can’t say I don’t like getting it earlier now, but there was something grand about having to wait for it that built up your anticipation and made it somehow more special.

To me, there are two (or three) other factors to this beer that make it so great. First, they change the recipe each year. So not only is there anticipation about its release generally, but also about what it will taste like this year. How much time have I spent sitting around with friends trying to figure out just what spices are in each year’s version? I know there a lot of people, including many beer enthusiasts and the entire nation of Germany, who don’t like spice in their beer. I am not one of those people. I love spicy beers. Not every day, of course, but the more different types of beer loose in the world, the better off we are. The more choices, the better we can experiment and decide what works best when and with what. And there are times when spices in beer work perfectly. I usually pair my Thanksgiving meal with Anchor Christmas, for example, because the spices work so well with turkey’s modest flavors, making both taste better. In addition, the mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and stuffing all benefit from being lubricated with a spicy beer.

Second, they change the label each year. Each year it’s a new mini-work of art featuring a different tree (which I confess I’ve always had a thing for: trees, that is). They’re beautiful labels and each year they create a new poster featuring all of the labels from 1975 up to the current year. I have one from a couple of years ago framed and hanging in my kitchen. You can see this year’s poster at Anchor’s website and you can even buy one in their gift shop. That also adds to the anticipation, finding out what tree will be featured on each year’s incarnation. They also do a kick-ass neon sign. But there’s one more thing about this beer that I love. It can be aged.

Despite it’s modest strength and most likely due to the spicing, Anchor’s Christmas Ale can be laid down, usually for almost ten years and still be drinkable. For a time during the late 1990s, when the beer was more heavily spiced, it actually seemed to taste better after being aged for at least a year and I would lay down quite a bit of it to take advantage of that phenomenon. I still have several Magnums from year’s past in one of my beer refrigerators, as well as at least a case of 12-ounce bottles from various years stretching back to the early 1990s. There’s nothing more enjoyable than doing a vertical tasting of Anchor Christmas beers. I’ve done a few myself, at least one at the Celebrator and twice at Anchor Brewing with older beers from their private cellar. It’s great fun to compare both the different year’s recipes and also what the aging process has done to the beer.

Last night was Anchor’s annual Christmas party and it was my first chance to have this year’s Christmas Ale on draft, though I’d had bottles several times. To my mind, this year’s tastes quite similar to last year but I haven’t yet had a chance to do a side-by-side comparison. The spicing is mild, as has been typical in recent years. As a result, it has a wider appeal — though for myself I miss the heavily spiced days — and is still a wonderful beer. I won’t even try to speculate on what spices are there, that’s a better thing to do with friends over a shared pint or bottle.

One last thing about winter ales that is somewhat different from most traditional seasonal beers. Unlike springbocks or marzens, which are distinct styles, holiday beers can be any style that the brewer chooses. This has led to much more diversity in Christmas beers than in any other kind of seasonal. Even summer ales, which have no style attached to them, still tend to be lighter so they’re more appropriate during that season’s warmer weather. This makes tasting all of the holiday beers the most enjoyable one each year, because you never know what you’re going to get. It’s fun seeing what a brewery decided to brew when left to do whatever they fancied. Since brewers under such circumstances tend to make what they like, you can learn different brewers’ personal tastes, which can be useful in evaluating their other efforts. Plus, it’s just plain fun, the best time of the year to try different beers is without question the winter when strong, full-flavored beers of striking diversity are king. It’s the most wonderful season of all.

Holding a cup of Christmas Ale by the Anchor “tree” at their annual Christmas party last night.


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