Joy of Christmas Spirits

Today, it is not unusual to enter a bar and find a laundry list of exotic beers on tap or to hear news of a local brew pub or microbrewery opening up. Such was not the case in 1984 (only five years after the legalization of homebrewing) when the editor of the Centre Daily Times approached local lawyer Ben Novak about writing a bi-weekly beer column for the paper. The following excerpt appears in The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution published by Nittany Valley Press, which collects those columns, the very first of their kind in the United States, and makes them available for the first time since their original publication. They harken back to a time when only a small American subculture had discovered the endless, delicious possibilities of good beer.

By Ben Novak

There are some folks who say that Christmas is not what Christmas once was.

In the ancient days, a story was once passed through England that a savior had been born to redeem this dull and work filled world. We do not know whether all who heard believed the story. But we do know that just about everyone who heard it believed the very story itself to be a sufficient cause for joy and celebration.

Thus it is recorded that Christmas was “celebrated from early ages with feasting and hearty, boisterous merriment” To raise up the lowest spirits to the joy of the occasion in the bleakest month of winter, special Christmas ales were brewed. The joy of the Christmas story and the warmth of a Christmas ale were welcomed at every Yule-time hearth. The poet Marmion caught the spirit in his verse:

England was merry England then,
Old Christmas brought his sports again
‘Twas Christmas broaches the mightiest ale
‘Twas Christmas told the merriest tale
A Christmas gambol oft would cheer
A poor man’s hearth through half the year.

The Wassail Bowl is best known to be associated with Christmas cheer. In ancient times the chief ingredients of Wassail were strong beer, sugar, spices and roasted apples. The following is a recipe for Wassail served in 1732 at Jesus College, Oxford as transcribed by the venerable Bickerdyke:

“Into the bowl is first placed half a pound of Lisbon sugar, on which is poured one pint of warm beer, a little nutmeg and ginger are then grated over the mixture, and four glasses of sherry and five pints of beer are added to it. It is then stirred, sweetened to taste and allowed to stand covered for two to three hours. Three or four slices of thin toast are then floated on the creaming mixture, and the Wassail bowl is ready.” In another recipe this mixture is made hot, but boil boiling, and is poured over roasted apples laid in the bowl.

Such a recipe must have been the inspiration for the following old carol which celebrates our theme:

Come help us to raise
Loud songs to the praise
Of good old England’s pleasures
To the Christmas cheer
And the foaming Beer
And the buttery’s solid treasures.

Merry olde England did not become merry on lagered beer nor even on the standard ales of today. Special holiday beers and Christmas ales were deep and manly draughts. So do not attempt to try the recipe above with Miller, Bud, or even Twelve Horse. To revive the Wassail and the joy of Christmas past, the ancient ales and beers must be rediscovered.

In the 19th century and up until Prohibition most of the 1500 breweries of America annually produced special Christmas and holiday ales and beers. The 14 years of Prohibition not only wiped out half of America’s breweries, but also all but one or two of its holiday brews.

Special Christmas Brews

The times, however are catching up to the past. The brewing of Christmas ales and beers is once again spreading across the land. In 1974, the Anchor Brewing Company introduced the first new Christmas Ale in America since 1939. Every year since then Anchor has brewed a new and different Christmas Ale to cheer the hearts of San Franciscans. Nearer to home, the Fred Koch Brewery of Dankirk, NY brews a delighted “Holiday Beer.” It is lighter than many Christmas ales, but deeper and fuller bodied than ordinary ales. This Holiday Beer is available at some Centre County distributors and restaurants.

Not much farther away but not yet available in Pennsylvania in Newman’s Winter Ale, specially brewed for the holidays in Albany, NY.

Special Christmas imported beers are available in most large cities. They include Noche Buena from Mexico, and Aass Jule ol (pronounced Arse Yule Ale) from Norway. Noche Buena is brewed by Austrian immigrants who modeled it after the holiday brews of Imperial Vienna. It has been described as one of the best examples of “Teutonic nostalgia” for the colorful beers of the 19th century. It is a dark brown malty brew with a great blend of imported hops. Aass Jule ol is not really an ale’ the word “ol” means beer in Norwegian. It has a dark, rich, malty flavor which seems to have the power to redeem the darkest day in December.

Across the country, microbrewers and regional brewers have been bringing out special Christmas brews which are not widely distributed. In Minnesota, August Schell makes an amber beer with deep taste which it calls “Xmas Beer.” In Wisconsin, the Walter Brewing Co. of Eau Claire has been making a dark “Holiday Beer” since the 1880’s. Walters also continues to market another brand called “Lithia Christmas Beer.” In Colorado, the Boulder Brewing Co. began brewing a special Christmas Ale in 1979. It is a strong, dark ale flavored with fresh ginger root. Michael Lawrence, the brewmaster at Boulder, merrily informs us that “It is modeled after the mulled ales of 17th and 18th century England.

The West Coast, however has the largest number of Christmas Ales. In addition to Anchor of San Francisco, the award winning Yakima Brewing Co. of Washington State makes an annual holiday mulled ale of honey and spices which is described as Wassail. It is “Grant’s Christmas Ale” which has a 6 percent to 7 percent alcohol content. Farther south the Sierra Nevada brewery of Chico makes “Celebration Ale” for the holidays. It has been described as a “classic winter ale in the English tradition.”

Thus with the rediscovery in America of Christmas ales and holiday beer s there is some small reason to hope that Christmas may once again be celebrated as Christmas once was. Just as on that first Christmas night the breath of the humblest stable animals warmed the crib of the child who came to bring joy to the world, so special Christmas ales and beers have traditionally been brewed to warm us to the joy of that blessed story.

Ein Prosit der Gemutlichkeit!

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