‘Tis the saison

Love them or hate them, it’s time to brace yourself for the annual onslaught of Christmas beer.Although steeped in heritage, these beers don’t automatically mean brewers are reaching straight for the spice rack, as Matthew Curtis finds out…

Now that the clocks have rolled back and dark nights and cold days are gradually drawing in, naturally it’s time to start thinking about Christmas – and, inevitably, that also means Christmas beer.

Spiced beer, including those that fit the Christmas mould, is often a source of derision in the beer world; the British equivalent of the awful pumpkin beer craze that sprung out of the US a few decades ago.

Some folk cannot get enough of seasonal spices, such as cinnamon or nutmeg in their beer, though I’m personally turned off by anything flavoured in this way. However, as a style, there can be so much more to the Christmas beer than sticking a load of spice into a fermenter and slapping a seasonal label on it. But are even the best of these seasonally brewed beers really worth investing in, or is it just an example of brewers cashing in on the yuletide holiday?

According to beer historian Martyn Cornell, commercial examples of Christmas-themed beers existed as long ago as the early 19th century. However, these beers wouldn’t bear a great deal of resemblance to the spiced beers we associate with Christmas nowadays.

“British brewers – and Belgian too – almost certainly always brewed a special strong ale for Christmas,” Cornell says. “Probably the previous March, to give it a good long maturation period.”

These seasonally brewed ales were traditionally very high in alcohol, which made them expensive compared to other beers at the time. Cornell’s research shows that in 1886, Sedgwick’s brewery in Watford had brewed an XXXX Yule Ale, which was sold for two shillings a gallon, a tidy sum in late 19th century Britain. These strong ales went into decline after the First World War due to the introduction of stricter taxes on high-strength beer, almost disappearing outright. This wasn’t to be the end of the Christmas beer, however.

“It was not until the small brewery revival began to take off in the 1980s that drinkers in Britain were again offered a range of Christmas special beers,” Cornell says. “New, small brewers were keen to offer customers something a bit different for the festive season.”

It was then that British brewers turned to their long-neglected spice rack in an attempt to find a point of difference to make their beers stand out. Cinnamon and nutmeg were, of course, common additions, but more unusual ingredients such as coconut were also used in beers such as Young’s Christmas Pudding Ale. This new wave of Christmas ales was generally strong and robust, not dissimilar to the many that were brewed over a century ago. 

Kent’s Shepherd Neame brewery was an early champion of the Christmas beer revival. Records indicate it was brewing a seasonal beer as early at the 1950s, though its annual Christmas Ale, spiced with cinnamon, was first released in the 1970s. I’ve often felt beers such as this to be a bit of a novelty, so I decided to speak to Shepherd Neame’s head brewer, Richard Frost, to see what he thought.

“Our Christmas Ale is very popular and my personal opinion is that you have failed as a brewer if it’s just a novelty brew,” Frost says. “I can forgive a pump clip for novelty value – it is Christmas after all – but the brew itself needs to be more sophisticated.”

Frost also believes that Christmas beers emerged because beer lovers are always looking for something that tastes a little different, perhaps now even more so. Even the UK’s young wave of craft brewers has jumped on the Christmas bandwagon in recent years. South London’s Partizan Brewery even went as far as to produce a barrel aged, sour cherry, Bretted stout a couple of years ago. This goes to prove there’s still plenty of room for innovation when it comes to brewing festive beers. 

Belgian brewers have also made their mark on the Christmas beer market, most likely because they brew some of the best. Naturally, Belgian Christmas beers are Belgian in every sense; traditional and often very, very strong. De Dolle brewery of Esen, West Flanders brews the cult favourite Stille Nacht, meaning “silent night”, which weighs in at a whopping 12% ABV. This fan favourite also ages very well and vintages are therefore highly sought after.

Like us Brits, Belgians are not averse to adding a little spice to the mix, but often stretch beyond the typical range of ‘winter’ spices. For example, N’Ice Chouffe, from Achouffe Brewery in the Ardennes region, incorporates an unusual blend of thyme and curacao. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but when these spices mingle with the tangy, banana flavoured esters produced by the yeast, they merge to make one very enjoyable beer. 

Yet, even if you are fundamentally opposed to spiced beers, there is still hope. In recent years, brewers have turned to hops, as well as spices, in their winter seasonal beers. 

California’s Sierra Nevada first brewed its winter IPA, Celebration, in 1981, to celebrate the arrival of the cold season, which for many brewers heralds the arrival of fresh hops. It might not have been intentionally brewed as a Christmas beer, but for fans of Sierra Nevada, this beer and its deep citrus aromatics have become synonymous with the holiday season. 

More recently, the Scottish tykes at BrewDog have got in on the hoppy Christmas beer act with the imaginatively titled, “Hoppy Christmas”. This beer features no added spice or adjuncts; in fact it’s just a straight up, single-hopped Simcoe IPA that’s as good as any of BrewDog’s other hop-forward beers. It goes to prove that Christmas beers needn’t necessarily be about the recipe, but more a sense of time and place. It’s simply a case of finding the right flavours that get you in the Christmas spirit. And of course for many of you that’s a subtly spiced, winter brew. 

“I love beers that give me a sense of time, or indeed place.” Shepherd Neame Head Brewer, Richard Frost says. “[Shepherd Neame] loves to bring variety throughout the year, with brews that reflect the season. As Christmas is a time for treating yourself, it’s a great excuse for the brewers to go to town on richness, complexity and warmth.”

Cornell shares this sentiment: “Today people are still looking for something a little special to drink at Christmas, stronger than their ordinary tipple, just as they were 200 and more years ago.”

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