by Jan Machiel van Bragt Beer connoisseur 17 November 2020
It’s quite early to be talking about Christmas. Trees aren’t up, sparkling ornaments, wreaths and Christmas lights are still locked away. However, if it’s related to beer then, we are always keen. No time like the present!
Belgian Christmas beer
In the 1920s, the now-known Stella Artois lager was introduced as a Christmas beer (Stella meaning Star). Due to its enormous success, it is brewed all year round and has since become the most popular Belgian lager. Similarly, the "Paters Trappists of Chimay" developed a Christmas beer in 1948 which too, was first only available in winter and later became the classic we all love, Chimay Blauw.
Extra heavy beer as a Christmas gift
In the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, brewing was only possible during winter. The lack of more advanced techniques during the hotter months meant it was impossible to cool. This set up seemed to work well for the labourers, who worked on farms during the summer and then found work in breweries in during the winter. When the cold came, the leftovers of the granary were used to make a heavier winter brew. The recipe and methods of an existing beer were developed into a heavier winter version and was gifted to staff and loyal customers.
A nice example of this is the Avec les Bons Voeux (Best Wishes in English), a Tripel Saison from Dupont Brewery and a quite heavier version of the Saison Dupont. Nowadays almost every Belgian brewery creates such a winter creation.
A Christmas beer festival
In the beginning of the nineties a number of OBERs (Objective Beer Tasters Essen Region) from Essen took the initiative to bring all Belgian Christmas and winter beers together. What once started as a local festival with 40 beers, has now become a true phenomenon. The Christmas beer festival is included in the list of 10 best beer festivals in Belgium and is always sold out. Last year, the Saturday of the festival sold out within 2 days... in August!!! An international audience tastes Christmas and winter beers for 2 days. The selection ranges from a warm Liefmans Gluhkriek to a lot of barrel aged beers. The visitors also vote for their favourite Christmas beer. A legendary beer festival for sure.
Beers for Christmas!
So, Christmas beer is in fact a style. They are defined by seasonal beers that are exclusively brewed at Christmas. As we have seen, this can change. They are commonly strong, dark and spiced with cinnamon, orange peel, cloves and vanilla. The true tastes of Christmas!
Despite Christmas beers being a specific sub style, there are still lots of flavours that evoke that Christmassy taste and feeling. When the cold air of the winter season rattles at your window and pumpkin beers of autumn give way to holiday offerings, beers with a spiced warmth and high alcohol content help you ignore the chill outside. Beers with chocolate, vanilla and sweet dark fruits also create a particular richness and feeling of luxury that is so often synonymous with Christmas time.
Although winter is pretty entwined with Christmas, winter beers are a little bit more general, although the flavours are similar. They are often ales, barley wines, stouts, porters and quadrupels. There is nothing nice than getting cosy for the festive season with deep amber, golden brown and sometimes even rich black, spicy beers. The emphasis is on warmth and strength, perfect for dark nights, shielding from the cold.