What does Christmas taste like? Across the Western world, people consume such ludicrous amounts of turkey, duck, gravy and roast potatoes that Christmas dinner should probably be a national emergency. But the flavours that truly encapsulate the history of Christmas are in fact those of a dark, sweet, malted beer. We decided to dig deeper into the history of the Christmas beer, so hold on to your Christmas hats as we travel back in time to the Scandinavian winters of old to find the answer.
Like most traditions, no one really remembers where it came from or why we do it, but we go along with it all the same, probably fearing we might lose an excuse to get a good winter buzz going. But when you dig into it, the Christmas beer has a long and proud history that connects it intimately with those most famous of our Scandinavian ancestors, the vikings. The story begins about a thousand years ago, when the people of Scandinavia worshipped gods like Odin and Thor and celebrated the changing seasons with raucous parties.
»At midwinter, people gathered at the home of the chieftain or the king to celebrate the winter solstice, bringing animals for slaughter and good, home-made beer of an extra strong variety, which was consumed with the food,« explains Carsten Berthelsen, a beer expert who has written an array of books about beer – including ‘Julens Øl’ (‘The Beers of Christmas’), which was released last year.
Upon the arrival of Christianity, believers adopted these festive traditions, celebrating both Easter and Christmas by drinking strong, brown beer. For centuries, Christmas beer was also known as ‘The Christmas Barrel’ since it was matured and stored in a barrel. The barrel also incidentally acted like a kind of proto-Advent calendar – when the beer barrel was empty, Christmas was over as well.
No beer during World War II
Christmas beer was brewed in merchants’ houses or on farms, where women were typically in charge of production. All that changed in the mid-18th century, however, as a small brewery revolution broke out, moving beer brewing out of private homes. From 1850 onwards, nearly 10 breweries opened each year in Denmark, until the Second World War threw a spanner in the works of the production of Christmas beers and other strong beers.
»During the German occupation, people were not allowed to produce the strong beer varieties, as the malt or grain was to be used for bread. But after the Second World War, the larger breweries resumed brewing strong beer for Easter – and that tradition benefited the Christmas beer. Close to our time, Christmas beer became really popular,« says Carsten Berthelsen.