Thirty-two Christmases ago, Anchor Brewing Company owner Fritz Maytag made 300 cases of a limited-edition beer and gave the bottles away as gifts. “I knew of the ancient tradition of little brewers in various villages creating a special holiday ale and giving it to friends and family,” says Maytag. “I thought it was just such a lovely idea.” Since then, Anchor has put out one-of-a-kind Christmas beer with a different tree on the label every year—beech, birch, redwood, Douglas fir, even palm—but the spices and formula for the beer itself remain a secret.
Outside America, centuries-old traditions still dictate styles of holiday ale. In Belgium, Christmas beers are generally dark, high gravity (strong), and somewhat spicy, though most of the time the flavor comes from malts and hops rather than actual spices, like cinnamon or cloves. Norway produces more Christmas beer than any other country, with the oldest brewery, Ringnes, churning out over half a million liters a day. The typical Norwegian Christmas beer is a nutty, coppery lager that’s light to medium bodied and unspiced, but Scandinavia also produces winter ales brewed with actual spruce tips. As expected, they inflect a slightly pine tree–like flavor. Spruce has been used throughout the Northern Hemisphere (it was historically favored by seamen, who believed it could cure scurvy), but these days finding a spruce beer is harder than you’d think. Oregon’s Siletz Brewing Company Spruce Ale and Alaskan Brewing Company’s Winter Ale are among the few that make it stateside.
Spruce was historically favored by seamen, who believed it could cure scurvy.
There’s no one way to make holiday beer. Some brewers (like Maytag) spice them. Some (like Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman and Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall) believe that beer is no place for spices and instead create spicy flavors that taste more like what you’d expect from beer, by dry-hopping (adding hops to the maturation tank to increase pleasantly bitter, citrusy, and piney flavors and aroma) and by using caramelized and/or chocolate malts. (Caramelized malts result when barley malts’ starches are converted to sugars and caramelized by a specific dry-roasting technique. Chocolate malts have been roasted to a very dark stage, where chocolate-like flavors come through.)
Anchor’s Fritz Maytag does the same. “At any given moment, I’ll have four or five different years from my private stock stashed in the refrigerator, and each night before bed, my wife and I share one,” he says.
Just don’t forget to brush your teeth, Fritz.