For a long time, Britain had beers associated with Christmas that weren’t explicitly billed as Christmas beers.
If Frank Baillie’s 1973 Beer Drinker’s Companion is anything to go by, there were certainly winter ales released in November or December in time for Christmas, but they didn’t feature Father Christmas on the pump clips or labels; they weren’t called things like Rudolf’s Throbbing Conk; and they weren’t dosed with cinnamon and nutmeg. As far as we can see, Shepherd Neame’s bottled Christmas Ale was the only one with Christmas is in its name at that time.*
Based on looking through old copies of the Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide (thanks again, Ed!) it looks as if the idea of marketing ‘winter warmers’ as Christmas beers really took off in the increasingly competitive real ale scene of the 1980s. The 1987 GBG (published in 1986) lists around ten beers that we would classify as definitely Christmas seasonals, such as Mauldon Christmas Reserve, Wood’s Christmas Cracker and the Bridgewater Arms’s Old Santa.
One name stood out among this crowd of (ahem) pioneers: family brewers Greene King. Tracking back through the decade, the other Christmas ale brewers drop off one by one, until only (as far as we can see) Greene King’s Christmas Ale was left, first appearing in 1984.**
UPDATE 30/01/2015: Here’s evidence of a Charles Wells Christmas Ale available in the winter of 1975-76. (Link to PDF.)
While these beers were all relatively strong and dark, none of them seem to have been dosed with spices, at least according to a set of tasting notes provided by Danny Blyth in CAMRA’s newsletter, What’s Brewing, in December 1986. The same issue does, however, include an article by Peter Pearce on mulled ale traditions involving ginger, nutmeg and cloves — perhaps that kind of talk gave people ideas?
Across the Atlantic, Anchor’s Our Special Ale, aka Anchor Christmas, was first brewed in 1975 and was certainly intended as the revival of an ancient tradition. (There’s more on this from Tom Acitelli, author of The Audacity of Hops, in an article published yesterday.) Using a different recipe each year, by the late 1980s, it routinely contained Christmassy spices. The 1988 version was available in the UK through Majestic Wine Warehouses, as reported by Ronald Atkins in the Guardian on Christmas Eve that year and, we suspect, made a splash among beer geeks.
In the 1990s, it was probably the more general clamour for guest ales and seasonal specials, and the subsequent interest in wacky ingredients (Brew Britannia, Chapter Ten), that led to beers such as Lichfield’s Mincespiced, Blackawton’s Winter Fuel (‘a dark spiced beer‘) and Swale Christmas Spice becoming more-or-less obligatory in the product ranges of British brewers.
This piece is based on a couple of hours research over breakfast this morning (we were up early because a gale was blowing a tin can round in circles in the street) and is by no means intended to be definitive. Not that we ever need to ask, but do correct us in the comments below if you know better.
* Based on comments below, we added reference to Shepherd Neame’s bottled Christmas beer.
** We also removed a reference to King & Barnes Festive which first appeared as a draught beer in the GBG in 1981 but was not, it turns out, anything to do with Christmas.
This December 1980 local CAMRA newsletter from South Hertfordshire says…
Christmas ale fans will have a double delight this year with the introduction of Greene King’s Christmas Ale and the appearance for the second year of Mac’s seasonal offering. The McMullen’s Christmas brew is essentially the same as last year’s, a dark 1070 beer, not quite as sweet as many of its type and, for my money, much the better for it. It doesn’t surprise me that many pubs will not serve people with too much of this stuff!
The Greene King beer, strangely enough, will only be available through Rayment’s houses. The beer is around 1060 OG and is effectively a naturally conditioned version of St Edmund Ale. Both beers are now in the pubs. I suggest you get out and try them, before it’s too late.