Eoghan Walsh revels in the enduring pleasures - and pitfalls - of Belgium’s Christmas beer tradition
Tuesday 29 December 2020
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It was the train shuffling away from the platform at Brussels Central that jolted me out of my nap, alerting me to the fact that I had only one station left ahead of me if I was to get off the train in the correct city, Belgium’s capital and the place I’ve called home for a decade. In my defence, it’s a long journey down from the Belgian-Dutch border town of Essen, and falling asleep on public transport is an occupational hazard for beer festival attendees.
Because, as well as being the last Belgian station on the railway to The Netherlands, Essen is also home to what could be the most idiosyncratic, rambunctious, and festive beer festival in the country - the Kerstbierfestival. Every December, thousands of people make their way to Essen’s Heuvelhal for two days of celebrating Belgium’s rich Christmas beer tradition. It’s a festival at which the average ABV of the beers on offer teeters somewhere around 10%, so what other option was there for a post-festival like myself than to sink slowly into a yule-inspired fugue state as I rumbled home towards Brussels.
Belgium’s beer reputation is almost defined by its odd edges, unconventional brewers and their unconventional beers, and the curious traditions that have emerged from the country’s brewing culture. This is after all the country that maintained a monastic brewing tradition long after others had abandoned it. It is a country possessing a formal Knighthood of the Brewers’ Paddle, a modern descendent of the medieval brewers guilds and one which bestows gold medals to the country’s brewing worthies.
Christmas beers - Kerstbieren in Dutch, and Bières de Noël in French - and Essen’s Kerstbierfestival are just one more thread in Belgium’s rich brewing tapestry. Belgium is not alone in having a tradition of strong, dark, often spiced, beers brewed for the yuletide festivities; Scandinavians have their Juleøl, Germany its Weihnachtsbier, and England has its Winter Warmers. In fact, the Belgian Christmas beer tradition as we know it today owes its origins not to any indigenous Christmas brewing heritage from the Low Countries, but to their English (or, more often, Scottish) brewing counterparts across the Channel.
Scotch Ales become Christmas Ales
In the early 1900s, English beers were hugely popular with a Belgian drinking class that desired bright, clear, fresh, and modern beers that local brewers were not in the business of brewing. Already advertised in local papers before World War I, after Armistice in 1918 the Belgian obsession with British beers grew exponentially. And alongside adverts for Whitbread Stouts and Pale Ales, you could find notices for McEwans Scotch, Double Scotch Ale and - depending on the time of year - Old Scotch Christmas Ale.
By the 1930s and into the 1940s Belgian brewers had begun brewing domestic rivals to these foreign imports, or were commissioning breweries in Scotland to brew something specifically for the Belgian market. Drinkers found themselves in a situation where they could drink a glass of Navy’s Christmas Ale, brewed in Brussels, or Gordon’s X-mas brewed in Edinburgh for the beer importer John Martin. A century later, Gordon’s survives, although it is now brewed in Belgium, and is what could be accepted as standard example of the Christmas Ale style: dark and strong, intensely sweet with muted hop character, often (but not always) spiced, and malt-forward with a very light roast. Perhaps the most famous Belgian Christmas Ale to emerge in the post-war period proved so popular that it escaped its seasonal release to become a year-round blockbuster for the monks responsible for its production. Chimay Bleue, the darkly enticing flagship of the Chimay Trappist brewery, started its life as a seasonal Bière de Noël in 1948, before it was released year-round in 1954.
In and out of style
It’s not hard to see the familial connection between the Double Scotch Ales of John Martin and Chimay. But curious drinkers thinking a template for Belgian Christmas beers was set in the first half of the 20th century and stuck to dogmatically ever since are failing to consider the eccentricities of Belgium’s brewers. Belgian brewers by their nature are averse to rigid categorisation; ask them in what category they might place this or that beer of theirs and they may create a style all their own, or more likely say they brew to no style specification but instead brew what they like and it is up to others to categorise the beer. It’s no coincidence that it took a foreigner - beer writer Michael Jackson - to coral the country’s cornucopia of beers into still-fluid style designations. Christmas beers are no exception. Qualifying a beer as a Christmas ale is less a process of ticking off certain characteristics than it is a question of identity (Yuletide iconography and/or name) and availability (the period running up to and through Christmas and the New Year). This is why beers as diverse as Brouwerij De Ranke’s Père Noël, amber, bitter, and 7% ABV, and the dark, boozy, fruity St. Bernardus Christmas Ale can sit side by side on the tap list of the Essen Kerstbierfestival.
Silent Night, Holy Beer
There is perhaps no better example of the fluidity around the Belgian Christmas beer categorisation than perhaps the most-garlanded and obsessed-over of all Belgium’s festive brews: Stille Nacht from Flemish brewery De Dolle Brouwers. Ostensibly a Strong Belgian Pale Ale at 12% ABV, the beer is instantly recognisable for its label with the rotund brewery (whose name means “The Mad Brewers”) mascot Oerbier man in a snowy, Christmas landscape. The beer is brewed every year for the holiday season, and no two editions are exactly alike. It’s complexity, strength and fruity aromatics have ensured the beer has been crowned “best Christmas beer” on multiple occasions at the Kerstbierfestival’s annual awards, and the beer rarely drops out of the top ten. The beer - the name of which is Dutch for “Silent Night” - has garnered an obsessive online following, stimulated both by the quality of the beer, but also the variety of each yearly edition and the evolution of those beers as they age over time in their bottles.
There are few people better placed to rhapsodise about the merits of Stille Nacht than Jezza G (who goes by the twitter handle @BonsVoeux1, and prefers to speak anonymously to keep his beer and professional lives separate). “Nothing else comes close,” he says of Stille Nacht’s reputation relative to the country’s other Christmas beers. He first came across it on a trip to Bruges in 1998 and was, he says, “blown away” by it. “[My] first impressions [were], this is different. This is strong. This is amazing! [It] needs to be treated with respect. Who are these Mad Brewers anyway?…So Christmas beers are a thing then?”
Supercharged Tripels from crazy brewers
He is fascinated by how the beer has morphed over time from the slightly sour-ish 8% dark ale that he first discovered to what he describes now as a 12% blond-ish “super charged Tripel on steroids”. And it is the anticipation of how each new vintage will differ (or not) from the previous one that keeps him coming back. “I am expecting 2020 Stille Nacht to be up there with the 2017 [edition],” Jezza says. “[I] Can’t wait to try it, and this anticipation of what might appear this year is one of those great features of the beer. While it’s not that different a recipe, I think, with relatively few actual tweaks, whether they’ve nailed it each year has a major impact on its quality. And that adds to its appeal.”
Jezza is (or was, until Covid-19 intervened) a regular attendee at Essen’s Kerstbierfestival, where he gets to indulge his passion in both draught and bottled format. To get in alongside Stille Nacht, the only qualifying criteria are that entries are described by their breweries as Christmas beers, and they are brewed in Belgium. A 230-strong list at the 2019 edition is evidence enough that interest in Christmas beers has risen alongside Belgium’s brewing revival in the past decade, in a category that received little coverage in Jackson’s totemic Great Beers of Belgium. It’s also a list with some curious entries. In an interesting synthesis of Belgian and Scandinavian yuletide traditions, Danish breweries To Øl and Mikkeller are well-represented, given their beers are made an hour’s drive from Essen at the De Proefbrouwerij contract brewery outside Ghent.
It is a weekend of raucous crowds sat at long rows of communal tables, gathered under the banners of local and international breweries, Santa hats and reindeer antlers well-represented. “It’s a great event,” Jezza says. “Friendly, extremely well organised, [with an] amazing range of big, dark winter beers…And when it snows, as it did - heavily, in 2010 - it provides the perfect Christmas event!” He’s been to 15 of the last 18 festivals, and 2020 would have been his 16th if Covid-19 had not intervened and the festival was cancelled. He describes it as an annual end-of-year reunion, a chance to meet with old friends from around the world and indulge in a shared passion for strong, characterful Belgian beers.
It’s a passion - shared by brewers and drinkers alike - that the current uncertainty is likely only to postpone rather than extinguish altogether, and the festival’s organisers are already putting plans together to bring everyone back to Essen for two days of the best of Belgium’s Christmas brewing tradition in 2021. Ready again to send merry attendees off into the chilly December night with a wobble in their step, and a heaviness in their head, primed for a well-earned festive snooze as their train winds its way through the frosty Belgian countryside.
Five festive Belgian follies
Avec les Bons Vœux Brasserie Dupont
A New Year’s beer rather than a Christmas one (the name translates from French as “With the best wishes”, originally brewed in 1970 as an end-of-year reward for Brasserie Dupont’s loyal customers. Bons Vœux could best be described as a higher-strength (9.5%) version of the brewery’s famous Saison, and is an atypically festive beer - bitter in place of sweet, citric instead of jammy, golden instead of dark, and with a beautiful pillowy, meringue-soft mouthfeel.
Bush de Nöel/Scaldis Noël Premium Brasserie Dubuisson
A beer so good they named it twice. Technically, Bush de Noël has two names because Brasserie Dubuisson, the brewery that makes it, wanted to avoid any confusion between their Bush brand and a certain American lager brewery, choosing instead to sell there under the name Scaldis (named for a Belgian river). US magazine Paste crowned Bush de Noël its favourite Christmas beer in 2015, 2016, and 2017 - and with good reason. A sweet, complex aroma is accompanied by a warming but balanced heat from the 12% ABV, alongside dried fruits and port-like flavours.
Stille Nacht De Dolle Brouwers
It may have only come third in the 2019 Kerstbierfestival competition, but Stille Nacht brewed by former architect Kris Herteleers remains a cult favourite against which all pretenders to the throne of best Christmas beer are measured. So-called “Reserva” editions - matured on a variety of the brewery’s wooden barrels - are released occasionally. Characteristics will vary, but a recently-popped 2017 vintage was full of juicy, figgy, marmaladey, spicy notes alongside every bit of the alcoholic warmth you would expect from a 12% beer, and had kept its body and carbonation well in the intervening three years.
Gouden Carolus Christmas Brouwerij Het Anker
A personal favourite, and about the best of the “standard” Christmas beers currently brewed. Made by Het Anker brewery in Mechelen (where you can sleep off the ill-effects of too many Christmas beers in the adjacent hotel), Gouden Carolus Christmas is ruby-verging-on-dark-brown, 10.5% ABV brewed with three hop varieties and a blend of six different herbs and spices. Of these, it is anise and liquorice notes that predominate; thick, gummy and with a hint of roast in the finish, they will keep well in a cellar for years.
Beoir na Nollag Mescan Brewery
In addition to their own indigenous Christmastime beers, brewers outside of Belgium have also tried their hands at the Belgian Christmas beer tradition. London’s Anspach and Hobday have their Pfeffernusse Saison, inspired by the round cinnamon ubiquitous in Northern Europe in December, and Oregon’s Pfriem have their Belgian Christmas Ale, and 8% Belgian Dubbel brewed with coriander. But if you really want to execute the style correctly, you need a Belgian brewer - which is exactly what Mescan Brewery on the west coast of Ireland have. Their Beoir na Nollag (Christmas Beer as Gaeilge) is aged on Whiskey barrels and infused with traditional Christmas spices, and dry-hopped and bottle-conditioned. It is sweet, strong, alcoholic, with strong anise notes and a slightly lighter body and finish than you may expect.
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