My name is Bob Weisenberg and I’m fond of craft beer, traveling the globe and meeting new friends along the way. Today we’ll examine the holidays and the beers that celebrations are created around.
First a little history — I always try to fit history into my column to add context and facts to my stories.
Holiday seasonal styles of beer or ale have a long history in brewing cultures worldwide, from France’s bière de Noel, to Germany’s weihnacht, to contemporary American West Coast iterations from Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam and Anderson Valley. More on those later.
There are many “firsts” in the history of seasonal beer, but most seem to emanate from the Scandinavian countries we now call Norway and Sweden. Pre-Christian Scandinavian Vikings would brew winter beers during “Jul,” also known as “Yule,” in late December to honor Norse gods and the winter solstice. As Christianity was introduced to the region in the 10th century, certain laws actually mandated its citizens to create Christmas beers to honor their new Christian faith. Legend has it that failure to brew these hearty “Yule” beers could result in property seizures and stiff fines.
I know what you’re thinking. “But, Bob, the Chinese and Mesopotamians (Egyptians) were brewing a beer-like substance as far back as 7000 BC and it wasn’t until the Monks perfected the craft in the early 11th century did brewing become mainstream in a medieval sort of way.”
Everyone is correct here. What made the Scandinavian brew so different was the seasonality (winter solstice) and introduction of spices obtained by the Vikings during their spring and summer pillages of southern Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Now for some definitions of what makes a seasonal beer a seasonal beer. (As a side note, I’m not a pumpkin spiced latte or candy cane mocha kind of guy.)
Per the 2015 edition of the Beer Judge Certification Program, an autumn seasonal beer should be an “amber to copper, spiced beer that often has a moderately rich body and slightly warming finish suggesting a good accompaniment for the cool fall season, and often evocative of Thanksgiving” traditions. A Christmas or holiday beer should be a “stronger, darker, spiced beer that often has a rich body and warming finish suggesting a good accompaniment for the cold winter season.”
Ready to toast the variety of Christmas beers on the market today? These are a few of my favorites, and those of my good friends, that we like to bring to holiday parties.
My favorite, and still reigning champion in my humble opinion, is Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Fresh Hop IPA. Brewed in Chico since 1981, this full-bodied IPA typically hits store shelves and local tap houses around mid-October and lasts through January. Every year is a new formula, but per Sierra Nevada, Celebration is “famous for its citrus and pine aromas offering a new take on holiday beers, which are often spiced and sweet. Celebration is bold and intense.”
Sierra Nevada has a great tour, taproom and restaurant experience. Unfortunately, Sierra Nevada is closed due to COVID-19 until after Jan. 1, 2021. Once Sierra Nevada reopens, make arrangements to visit Chico and this fine family-owned brewery.
My second favorite is Anchor Brewing’s Christmas Ale. Anchor Brewing has been brewing beer in San Francisco since 1896, founded by German immigrant families who originally came to California during the Gold Rush. Beginning in 1975, Anchor began brewing their now famous Christmas Ale. Like Celebration, every year has a different secret recipe and a different Christmas tree on the label. This ale, according to Anchor’s website, is “a heavily guarded, confidential recipe and Christmas Ale is sold only from early November to mid-January. This highly anticipated seasonal delight is complex and full in flavor, packed with toasty cocoa notes, roasted malts and presents a smooth and velvety spiced flavor profile this holiday season.”
One additional note is that Anchor’s Christmas Ale is available in a Magnum bottle, which is a great presentation piece for a holiday party. Brewery tours are available at Anchor Brewing. Details can be found at their website.
Last – but certainly not least — are Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville and Moylan’s Brewing Co. in Novato.
Anderson Valley has both a Fall Hornin Pumpkin Ale and Winter Solstice Seasonal Ale. I’m not a huge pumpkin-flavored beverage guy, but the fall ale has just a hint of pumpkin. Both meet the definitions of an autumn and holiday or solstice ale. Additionally, Anderson Valley has their group of Barrel Series stouts and porters that are world-renowned and would make a great holiday gift. Their taproom is open seven days a week, and they have an 18-hole frisbee golf course.
On your way up to Anderson Valley or on your way back, stop by Moylan’s Brewing in Novato. Brendan Moylan is the owner and head brewer, and happens to be a college classmate of mine. He’s been in the brewing business for 31 years and this year has created a White Christmas Spiced Belgian-style Ale. Malty and smooth with a light tart and zesty finish, this year's ale contains holiday spices of orange zest, cinnamon and coriander. His brewery also has a very nice pub restaurant.
All of these beers and ales can be found at the breweries, BevMo, Costco or your favorite food retailer.
P.S.: Lodi Beer Company has traditionally brewed a Christmas Ale each year. Rumor has it that this year’s ale will be ready for the holidays.
Until next time have a beer with a friend, be socially distant, and be safe. Cheers — or as the Vikings once said, “Skål!”
Bob Weisenberg is a semi-retired HVAC executive and lifelong lover of beer while living the good life in Woodbridge.