So, Where Did All These Holiday Beers Come From?

The Most Popular Seasonal Style of Beer

Christmas beers, holiday seasonals, winter warmers whatever you feel like calling them, are the most popular seasonal style of beer. When you compare them to the bocks and biere de gardes released in the spring, to the pale wheat ales and hefeweizens you drink during the summer, to the oktoberfests and harvest beers that come out in the fall, there are nowhere near as many examples available, and there is no style more open to interpretation or experimentation than these. Most of them wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for the Christmas & holiday season, and as of this writing, there are very few decent-sized breweries in the world that don’t produce their own version. And the best part about it is that these beers can’t be defined by color, aroma, taste or alcohol content, so really, anything goes.

Anchor Brewing Christmas 2009 Beer

Anchor Brewing Begins an American Tradition

As you peruse the aisles at your local beer store in the coming weeks, you might be wondering where all these beers originated. The truth is, there is no singular person or brewery responsible for these delicious offerings. There are however, multiple parts of the world that all have their respective starting points. In the United States, there were a handful of holiday beers that were produced sporadically after prohibition. Miller produced one in 1935 but nobody is alive today that remembers what it tasted like. Others were made, but were not available every year and were only distributed regionally. This changed in 1975 when Fritz Maytag, owner of the Anchor Brewing Company, decided to brew a special beer with a new recipe as a gift to his family and friends. Known as Anchor Our Special Ale, the uniqueness of this beer is twofold: it is a spiced winter warmer, where the recipe changes slightly every year, as does the image on the label of a hand-drawn evergreen tree. This recipe is a closely guarded secret that Maytag has always been tight-lipped about; he won’t even disclose what types of hops are used. At 5.5% ABV, one would assume that this beer isnt designed to age, but I recently did a vertical tasting with 3 vintages, and concluded that a year or two in the cellar is the perfect amount of time for this beer to mature.

Samuel Smith’s Winter Warmer

Over in the UK, we have Samuel Smith Winter Welcome as the first prominent winter seasonal, and we have a man named Charles Finkel to thank for giving it to us. A Seattle wine importer, Finkel read Michael Jacksons World Guide To Beer in 1977, and this inspired him to work with Yorkshires Samuel Smith Brewery to create this unique, pioneering beer. Similar to Anchor Our Special Ale in the sense that it has a different hand-painted Victorian Christmas label on it each year, this beer doesn’t contain any holiday spices, but is a darker, maltier version of a classic English pale ale, and is a great session beer this time of year.

Belgian Christmas Beers

Belgian interpretations of Christmas beers are very numerous, and date back pretty far – nobody really knows which brewery is responsible for brewing the first one. What we DO know is that it all started with the Benedictine Monks, who, during the course of the year would save up any special ingredients or spices that they would acquire throughout the year to save for a special beer to brew to celebrate the birth of Christ. These ingredients were always rare or expensive, and the beer was designed to be bigger, bolder and stronger than anything else in their repertoire.

Samichlaus: The Official Santa Claus Beer

The last originator of Christmas beer I want to mention is Samichlaus. Yes, it’s the official Santa Claus beer, and at 14% alcohol, it is the strongest lager in the world. Brewed on December 6th every year, this beer was first made in 1980 by the Hurlimann Brewery in Austria, and in the early 90s was threatened to become extinct when the Feldschlosschen Brewing Combine purchased Hurlimann and determined that the beer was too expensive and not profitable enough to make anymore. As a result, an international campaign was launched to save it, and after being gone a few years, it was resurrected by the Schloss Eggenberg Brewery. Using the same recipe, and the same yeast strain, this beer is once again available and thriving. A beer so unique and cherished that a local priest offers a blessing in the brewery’s chapel as the first batch is boiling, Samichlaus is a must-try for every beer aficionado out there, especially if its been cellared for at least 5 years. At 14% alcohol, aging is this beer’s best friend.

So there’s the readers-digest version on the history of where all this stuff comes from. Last year around this time I posted my Top Ten Christmas Beers, and that list hasn’t changed much since then. Personally, there’s no other time of the year that I look forward to beer than right now. I’m in love with all of the beers mentioned above, due to their uniqueness, and the one thing that makes them even greater is the opportunity to share them with your loved ones during the holiday season.



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