by Jan Machiel van Bragt Recognised connoisseur and co-author of "De Biericonen der Lage Landen"
Beers for ChristmasBeer exclusively for the holidays
Is the Christmas tree up? The house decorated with sparkling ornaments? The Christmas lights shining bright and a wreath hanging on the door? Then it's time for beer. Christmas beer!
Jan Machiel van Bragt is the co-organiser of the annual Christmas Beer Festival in Essen (Belgium). He's going to give you an insight into the phenomenon of Christmas beer and "his" festival, for which the tickets already sold out back in August.
Most beers can be put in some main or sub-category or style. The brews that appear especially in winter time actually form a category of their own, a kind of freestyle. General characteristics of a winter beer are a high fermentation as well as a high alcohol percentage. It often has a dark colour and is seasoned. The herbs, which are also used in mulled wine, are typically "wintry" and include cloves, cinnamon, vanilla, liquorice, anise and thyme.
Beer for the gods
Let's take a look at the history of the Christmas and winter beer tradition. The Scandinavians celebrated the Winter Solstice Feasts in honour of the Gods Odin and Thor long before our era. The Germans also used to drink a hot and spicy beverage during winter. This hot drink made its way to England and as of today is still being drunk as a kind of cider in certain areas. Later, when the Christians started celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, many festive drinks were also consumed. A special beverage for the holidays is thus a long tradition.
Pils as a Christmas beer
In the 1920s, the now-known Stella Artois lager was presented as a Christmas beer (Stella meaning Star). Because of the enormous success, it has been brewed all year round and has become the most popular Belgian lager. The "Paters Trappists of Chimay" developed a Christmas beer in 1948 which at first was only available in winter and later became a classic called Chimay Bleue.
Extra heavy beer as a Christmas gift
In the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, it was only possible to brew during winter because of the lack of cooling techniques in the countryside. This also worked out well for the farm labourers, who then found work in the brewery in the winter. The leftovers of the granary were used in winter to make a heavier winter brew. This way an existing beer was brewed heavier and was gifted to staff and loyal customers.
A nice example of this is the Avec les Bons Voeux (Best Wishes in English), a Triple 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 sold out in August
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, the Christmas beer festival has now become a true phenomenon. The festival is included in the list of 10 best beer festivals in Belgium and is always sold out. The Saturday of the festival sold out within 2 days (and the pre-sale started 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. We don't want to miss it and Beerwulf will be there there to report on the 16th and 17th of December!