By Richard Bolster
These days the beer stores are overflowing with bright red and green colored packages all clamoring
to end up on your holiday table. Some are worth tearing open, others are like a sweater from Grandma.
But where did this beer and Christmas combination come from?
The ancient tradition of wassail may be the inspiration for what has come to be called the winter
warmer, or Christmas ale style of beer. Wassail is a word that refers both to a greeting – it’s Old
English for “be of good health” – and a ritualized singing and drinking ceremony meant to spread good
According to The Oxford Companion to Beer, the tradition of drinking wassail involved consuming
(probably large quantities of) hot, spiced ale that may have been topped with a slice of toast. At
Christmas time, revelers would have gone caroling from door-to-door drinking, singing and cheering
“wacht heil.” In return for their good wishes, the carolers may have received gifts, food and drink. This
practice was made popular by Danes living in England prior to the Norman Conquest.
A related ritual called wassailing the trees or the Apple Wassail involved consuming spiced cider or
ale while cavorting in the orchard. Wassail may have been splashed on the roots of the trees to ensure a
good harvest in the following growing season.
While wassailing is likely an Anglo-Saxon tradition, throughout Europe, whether it’s mulled wine,
gluhwein, posset, lambswool, wassail or glögg, beverages infused with holiday spices and dressed up
like a Christmas tree have been around for centuries. Yet the recent spate of winter warmers, Christmas
ales and holiday ales to be found in stores are a direct result of the craft beer movement.
At Vault Brewing Company we’re brewing up some tasty holiday treats that are sure to satisfy
every palate. We’re currently pouring a Cherry Dunkelweizen. Though dunkelweizen may be a style
associated with the cooler months it’s not exactly a typical holiday offering. Brewer Mark Thomas felt
the cherries would give the traditional German ale a tart and sweet boost to round out the flavor. And
the 168 pounds of cherry puree we added to the fermenter give the beer a deeper red, more festive,
Additionally, we’re offering our Holiday Porter. This traditional English ale is flavored with spices
that bring to mind a snowy forest and a warm fire. Spruce tips provide a bright, piney aroma, like that
tree you just dragged inside. Dark malts provide a slight smoky quality, while allspice, nutmeg and
cinnamon get you ready to bake Christmas cookies … or just drink beer.
And there’s much great Christmas ale that’s worth drinking. A pioneer of the style, Anchor Brewing’s
Christmas Ale is brewed using a different recipe every year but the resulting brew tends to meld an
herbal spruce note with a background of smokier, roasted malt flavor.
When brewing their Winter Welcome, Samuel Smith’s doesn’t change its recipe but they do design a
new label each Christmas. Winter Welcome shows strong caramel flavor and is on the maltier side.
Victory Brewing welcomed this winter by releasing a new seasonal. Winter Cheer differentiates itself
from the mass of strong, dark winter ales by being a light, crisp, refreshing wheat beer. Similar to their
Summer Love, it’s a highly sessionable seasonal.
Southern California’s The Bruery is halfway through their twelve-year homage to the Twelve Days
of Christmas. Each year they offer a brew inspired by the respective day in the song. For the sixth
year they’ve brewed a huge, 11.5% alcohol-by-volume (abv), Belgian-inspired strong dark ale with,
appropriately enough, cape gooseberries – a bright tasting, tart relative of the tomatillo. The result is a
sweet, mahogany brew with a big-bodied, chewy malt center that recalls prunes and figs. So bring me
some figgy pudding.
Belgian brewery La Chouffe’s Christmas beer N’Ice Chouffe is brewed with thyme and curaçao and is
almost as big as Santa’s belly at 10% abv. The beer’s candy-sweet aroma is as inviting as an unopened
present. Notes of clove, orange peel and Belgian spiciness make this smooth beer a celebration in a
And speaking of celebrating, Sierra Nevada’s boldly hopped Celebration Ale is a Christmas tradition
that dates back to 1981. This beer is distinctive by being, basically, a big IPA. It’s perfect for those of
us who want to be of good cheer but may not want the figgy pudding.
So whether you’re pouring from a bottle or drinking what’s on tap at Vault, with all of these holiday
offerings currently available, clearly it’s the most wonderful time to drink beer.