DRAFT PICKS: A special ale for the holiday season

As we get seriously tucked into the Christmas holiday season, it would do well to take a look back at traditions of the day.

First of all, let me point out that we in these United States lag disappointingly behind the rest of the world in establishing sure and firm traditions, (other than spending outrageous amounts of money in the purchase of horrifyingly trashy “Christmas” crap.) Indeed, it would seem that only real Christmas holiday traditions ‘native’ to this country involve going broke so that kids can spend one day playing with a molded piece of plastic.

We do, thankfully, have many traditions that have carried over from the countries of our family origins.

Consider if you will the Christmas tree. Until well into the 1920s. Many if not most homes in the U.S. never had a Christmas tree (certainly not poorer homes.)

In the 1870s and 80s, Christmas trees were “raised” in community settings such as the village square, a rural school house, or accommodating church, and community festivities were marked at those places and occasions. The tree was a communal thing, not a personal pleasure.

In fact, some churches seriously frowned on any Christmas trees celebration as being part of an archaic, pagan Germanic custom.

But, take heart, good friends and fellows, there was one tradition that held strong and fast - at least until Prohibition.

The Christmas Ale.

Almost every ethnic and national group have their own version of “The Christmas Ale.” (Obviously the Christians, and mostly the northern Europeans.) It was a very important part of the holiday celebration.

For example, we read in “Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land” by Kathleen Stokker

“When the tenth-century Viking king Haakon the Good moved the mid-winter festival of July to Dec. 25 to coincide with the Christian Christmas celebration, he accompanied that decree with the mandate that every peasant brew a measure of beer for Christmas.”

There was punishment for breaking this mandated law.

“The medieval Gulating Law continued and enforced that directive, calling for each peasant and his wife of hold a Christmas gilde (festive gathering) that featured beer. Failure to do so resulted in serious loss: a fine to the bishop for skipping one year and the confiscation of the property of any peasant who neglected the beer obligation three years in a row.”

In a publication of the magazine Brew Your Own, we read about English tradition of holiday brews - many of which carried over to the colonies.

“It’s difficult to describe winter seasonal beers in traditional style terms ... Perhaps it’s best to just say they are seasonal offerings that have something “special” about them – stronger, darker, spiced, hoppier – basically whatever the brewer wants to do as a gift for customers and that is somehow suitable for the winter season.

“Flavors typical of English Christmas puddings are common – figs, molasses, toffee, caramel, raisins, prunes, dried fruit and so on. In general, they are not roasty but feature dark caramel and dark fruit flavors.”

For those dedicated to discovering and enjoying the fine points of the brewing craft, Christmas time is a great opportunity to seeking out and enjoying the best of the best.

From now and until the New Year, we will be reviewing specific Christmas holiday offerings by some of the most talented braumeisters in the county.


Bell’s Christmas Ale

Bell’s Brewery • Kalamazoo

Bell’s Christmas Ale pours an apricot, even a slightly burnt orange color. It is opaque - a bit cloudy with the appearance of a thicker ale beverage, (but it is not so.)

A beautiful darker beige head forms that lasts and lasts leaving a wonderful lacing on the glass.

Taking a deep sniff we find a malty, fruity brew with a kick of hops sneaking in from the side.

Now ...the mystery. Both in aroma and taste there was something, (definitely hops in origin), that announced itself from the get-go - almost citrusy, a bit like coriander. (Even thought they don’t add extra ingredients to their mix.) I still haven’t figured it out.

Pleasant. Very pleasant.

Taking a healthy sip we find this is certainly a malt-focused ale, but there are enthusiastic tones of hoppy florals that don’t easily give way.

There is a harmonious intensity here - hearty and assertive while at the same time just mild enough to be suitable as a holiday drink in front of a roaring fire.

Bell’s Christmas Ale leans heavily to the spicy and fruity rather than to the more roasted malt tones. The taste, however, is composed by a very creative use of both hops and malts - not, as noted, by the addition of other ingredients. The brewmaster is an artist.

There is a pleasant, almost warming finish that lingers nicely. Bell’s has created a great holiday offering that comes highly recommended.

Shiner Holiday Cheer

Spoetzl Brewing • Shiner, Texas

Holiday Cheer is a wonderful dark wheat beer is brewed with peaches and pecans.

It is obvious. This crisp, dark amber beer is alive with garnet colored sparkles shooting through as it is released into a broad rimmed glass.

Holiday Cheer is a very handsome brew that pours well and offers up a half inch of off-white foam that maintains a presence thanks to an enthusiastic effervescence.

As noted on the bottle, so too noted by the nose. There is a definite peach aroma that pretty much covers up any other scents.

First wash confirms the peach character, introduces a touch of maltiness, and finally displays the roasted pecans, (although not in a powerful way.)

The pecans certainly hook up with the peaches well.

Despite the descriptive to this point, don’t misunderstand and think this to be an overly fruity beer.

Holiday cheer is a treat. There is just enough fruitiness to make it a defined seasonal, (although it wouldn’t be bad on a hot summer day.)

This is a really delightful beer. Enjoy.