A thousand years ago, as pagan yule traditions met Christianity, King Haakon the Good of Norway ordered each man in the country to take one-third of his ration of malt, make a special brew for the Christmas season and celebrate for as long as the beer held out.
So Christmas spirits were born. An apocryphal story? Perhaps, but then holiday beer has long been a concoction of myth and merriment, rebirth and ritual.
And it is a tradition that is thriving again in the United States after decades of Prohibition-induced drought. Primed by the growing numbers of tiny boutique breweries throughout the West, the thirst for holiday beers is growing faster than its availability.
“It’s just phenomenal what’s happened to us this year,” said Paul Quackenbush, owner of Shamrock Imports, a specialty beer distributorship in Long Beach. “It’s gone crazy for us. We run out of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale every week. Grant’s Spiced Ale, another Christmas beer, we’re out of that, too. We really had a big reaction to it.”
What sets a Christmas beer apart? For starters, most are available only from Thanksgiving through the first few days of January. With the exception of Coors’ new Winterfest brew, these incarnations are mostly the products of specialty brewers that dot California and Washington state.
They’re expensive, too, ranging from about $5 to $15 per six-pack. And while there is no strict recipe for these brews--which include ales, porters and stouts--they generally tend toward the dark, rich and highly alcoholic.
Anchor Christmas Ale, for example, is a re-creation of the spiced “wassails” of Medieval England, with an alcohol content of about 4%. Samichlaus, an imported Swiss malt liquor brewed on the Dec. 6 feast of St. Nicholas, is 14% alcohol. In contrast, lagers such as Budweiser have an alcohol content of 3.5%.
And the packaging is seasonal, bearing holiday symbols and idiosyncratic touches. Bottles of Anchor Christmas Ale are graced with a different tree each year and announce the beer’s reason for being: “Joy and celebration of the newness of life.”
Regardless of the daunting price tags on those labels, the Christmas brew seems to have wide appeal. Lou Moench, owner of Father’s Office, a Santa Monica beer bar, says the customers who drink the holiday brews he pours are “people who appreciate good beer.”
“When they find something special, like the Christmas beers, they’ll drink it till it’s gone and then go back to their old beers,” Moench said.
Fritz Maytag, president and brew master of San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co., could easily be called Father Christmas Beer, for his Christmas Ale is believed to be the first brewed in America since Prohibition ended in December, 1933.
“When we started this, it was in a long tradition that goes way way back in Medieval times in Europe and England to brew special ales for special purposes,” Maytag said. “We started in 1975 with a Christmas ale, and we have done it every year since then.”
Anchor has also changed its Christmas ale every year, with a freedom that does not extend to its flagship product--Anchor Steam beer. Maytag’s 1987 ale was described by one beer critic as having “a hint of nutmeg and orange blossom.” Maytag refuses to divulge the spices that flavor his Christmas Ale.
“We use a different formula and purposely try to achieve something, learn something,” Maytag said. “It adds to the fun of it. It’s like a cook who invites you over and says, ‘Try the stuffing in this turkey.’ ”
More breweries are joining the Christmas beer parade, and an increasing number of holiday beers are being stocked on store shelves alongside Anchor’s Christmas Ale and European imports such as Samichlaus and Aass Jule Ol from Norway.
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, for example, was first made by Chico’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in 1982. That batch was an experiment, and it was marketed for the first time in 1983. This year, said brew master Ken Grossman, the brewery made 11,000 cases, about 10% of all the beer Sierra Nevada manufactured in 1988.
Because the big brewers such as Miller and Anheuser-Busch are constrained by size and consumer expectations, they have been unable to take risks like their smaller rivals. But that began to change in 1986, when Adolph Coors Co. sold its first bottle of Winterfest.
Daniel Bradford, spokesman for the Boulder, Colo., trade group Assn. of Brewers, calls that sale a “dramatic breakthrough, an acknowledgement on the part of a major brewer of the validity of the specialty beer segment in the industry.”
Winterfest was first made in Coors’ experimental brewery and distributed to its executives. It was originally sold only in Colorado as a kind of thank-you gift for the brewery’s home state. When it sold out in three weeks, the firm decided to market it nationally in 1987.
A Difficult Job
“We found in our archives old brewing books from 1910 and made a recipe that simulated the Christmas-type brews that were made at that time,” said Finn Knudsen, Coors’ director of research and development. “After Prohibition, it sort of faded away. We simply re-enacted what had been there before.”
Coors will not divulge how much Winterfest it brews, but producing a limited run is difficult for such a huge brewery, Knudsen said.
“Coors is the largest single brewery in the world, and the (manufacturing) lines are huge,” he said. “If you have a little bit of beer, it will disappear. Anchor Steam would disappear in our pipelines.”
It is just that difficulty that killed off American imports of two Mexican holiday beers--Noche Buena Cerveza, or Holy Night beer, and Navidad, or Christmas, beer. Imports of both beers were discontinued this year, said Martin Johnson, vice president of marketing for Wisdom Imports of Irvine, which imported Navidad. Because so little was brought in, he said, it was not cost-effective.
“They did not have enough volume for the special packaging that went into exporting them, Johnson said. “Only the breweries set up to deal in that small a market segment can stay there. . . . It is a shame. They are outstanding beers. We had people who looked forward to them every year. “