As sure as the leaves fall from the trees, breweries love to produce beers that reflect the seasons. Interestingly enough, winter is the most popular, by far.
There is a long history of what are referred to as winter, holiday and/or Christmas beers all over the world — a practice that likely began thousands of years ago. There is very little difference between the three kinds of beers, except that winter beers allow for a much longer distribution period than the other two.
No one really buys Christmas-themed beers after New Year, but holiday beers can have up to a four-month run from Canadian Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day. Winter beers? Representing a quarter of the year starting in December, we all know it lasts for months either side in Canada.
There is really no strict definition of what a winter beer is, which gives brewers the chance to produce pretty much anything they choose. Given the cooler temperatures in the northern hemisphere during this time, most breweries create dark, malty beers that are often higher in alcohol, and with added spices.
Historically, Scandinavia has the deepest winter brewing traditions; Vikings brewed strong beer for Jul (Yule) celebrations around the winter solstice in honour of Odin and other Norse gods. In Norway, Jul transitioned to a more traditional observance after Christianity took hold. Because of the close proximity of the dates, they were rolled into one celebration. By the 13th century, each household was required by law to produce a Christmas beer.
The Swedes are often credited with bringing Christmas brewing traditions to North America in the 17th century, and to this day, Scandinavian breweries continue to create special beers for this occasion.
The British began producing winter beers as early as the 16th century. With the Industrial Revolution and parallel growth of commercial brewing, special Christmas-themed beers — often called “winter warmers” — became commonplace.
The world’s most famous Belgian Christmas beer is attributed to a brewery founded in 1366, but actually didn’t appear until 1926. Yes, it’s the infamous lager Stella Artois, which you might not have known has an implied connection to the Christmas Star.
Big commercial brewers of North America, born in the early to mid- 1800s, have rarely stepped outside of their comfort zone to produce special beers for any occasion. Their marketing departments and packaging may offer seasonality, but the product inside the bottle doesn’t change.
Some small independents before and after prohibition produced Christmas beers until most states banned references to Christmas or Santa Claus; so “holiday” beer became the accepted substitute. While the few dozen small breweries that survived prohibition continued to brew holiday beers, the modern Christmas version most likely began with Anchor Brewing’s 1975 release of Our Special Ale, which had a Christmas tree on the label and the words “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” around the edge.
Each year since, they have slightly altered the recipe and changed the variety of tree on the label. Since then, the new craft brewing industry has embraced the season to produce a plethora of general winter or Christmasspecific beers.
Here in Alberta, Big Rock Brewing produced Cold Cock Winter Porter for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, and has brought it back occasionally as a winter seasonal thereafter. Since 2008, they have produced McNally Winter Spice Ale as their regular seasonal offering.
Alley Kat, in Edmonton, has made Olde Deuteronomy off and on for 20 years as a special winter release, and Village Brewery may or may not brew their Monk Chai Winter Porter any given year. No doubt, new breweries throughout Alberta will be joining in soon with their own seasonal concoctions too.
One holiday trend that started five years ago, cannot be ignored — the Beer Advent Calendar. Copying the design and principle of a calendar with 24 compartments of gifts counting down the days leading up to Christmas, Beer Advent Calendar sales have increased more than ten-fold since its inception in 2012.
There are now multiple versions on the market from different producers, and many stores have taken to creating their own. You can also find Scotch and Shooter Advent Calendars, proving that adults want to enjoy advent calendars too.
Whether you’re looking for a gift or just want an unusual beer to try out yourself, you’ll find there is no shortage of limited edition, seasonally themed beers out there. Grab one (or several) before they disappear off the shelves. Until next year, Happy Holidays!