Where Did Christmas Ales Come From?

What's Brewing, December 1986, on old ales and winter beer.

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?

SOURCE: Anchor website.
SOURCE: Anchor website.

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.

UPDATES 17/12/2014

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.

UPDATE 20/12/2014

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.

24 thoughts on “Where Did Christmas Ales Come From?”

  1. It depends how you look at it. Originally, there was yule, the pagan mid-winter sacrifice, for which ale was an absolute requirement.
    So absolute, in fact, that “to drink yule” was synonymously used for “celebrate yule”.

    Later, the pagan yule feast was merged with the Christian Christmas, but the yule ale remained. The 10th century Norwegian Gulating law, for example, specified punitive fees for not brewing yule ale and blessing it in thanks to Christ and St. Mary.

    In Norway, at least, people still brew the traditional Christmas ale at home, a bit darker and stronger than their other brews. In fact, that’s what I was doing in this blog post.

    So I think this is a very long story that’s split into many separate strands and in my view what you’re recounting is the tail end of one of the strands. I don’t mean to suggest that you don’t know this, but it was really odd to read a post about “where did Christmas ales come from” and to find it starts in 1973. 🙂

  2. I don’t know anything about Norway – this is a reaction to Lars’s comment but not aimed at it, if that’s possible.

    In the British context (I emphasise!) nothing irritates me more reliably than claims of continuity with ancient pagan traditions (see: Boar’s Head Carol, Holly and the Ivy, etc). Were there ‘Christmas ales’ in 1931, 1876, 1729? Were Christmas ales suppressed by the Puritans in the 1650s, had they fallen out of use with the Reformation a century earlier, did they go underground when the Normans came over in 1066 (drinking cider as they came, presumably)?

    In Britain, Christianity took over a long, long time ago – for anything to have survived since St Augustine’s time it would need to have survived through the fall of Rome and the Saxon invasion, through the Norman Conquest… and so on, and on, for another 1000 years. I think a lot of the time what’s going on is people in a post-religious society feeling unable to engage with the Christian magic of the season & persuading themselves there’s another kind of magic in there, just under the surface.

    When it comes to the things currently called Christmas ales (in Britain) – which is to say, the mostly pretty bloody awful things currently called Christmas ales – I think our hosts are right: there is no continuity to anything much prior to 1981. (That’s ‘continuity’ meaning ‘we’ll do the same as we did last year’ – as distinct from ‘revivalism’ meaning ‘we’ll do something like they used to do’.)

    The ‘yule ale’ Lars refers to sounds very interesting, though – actual continuity? (Over a millennium?)

    1. With respect, as both a church going Christian and a kid of expat Scots I can confirm that the pagan continuity runs in our family in forms such as Grannie’s Hogmanay rules and the fact… FACT… of the wee people just beyond view. It simmers and glimmers and whispers in the background. We have the faerie flag for God’s sake: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairy_Flag

      So while, yes, there are some yearning new agers, there is no reason to suggest the pagan does not also represent continuity.

  3. Good topic.

    This 1850’s English source claims an old tradition for “Christmas ale” and defines it as strong or spiced.

    https://books.google.ca/books?id=4yBWAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA29&dq=Christmas+ale&hl=en&sa=X&ei=EoGRVKOhK42HyATLlYGYAw&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=Christmas%20ale&f=false

    I think what happened by the 1980’s was that the folk memory of this tradition fused with the idea of certain beers being suitable as “winter drinks”. The term winter drink appears in some ads in the mid-1900’s and referred to Burton and old ale in this regard.

    The American idea to have a strong beer around Christmas-time probably derives both from this background and the German practice to serve bock beer about this time. The Barmann salvator beer was following German tradition.

    Taken all round it seems Europe probably reserved special brews, meaning strong or specially flavoured, for this time. I have a book on Alsatian brewing and am pretty certain there are references in older Xmas beers in there, I’ll check.

    Gary

  4. Gary’s suggestions of revival based on “folk memory” plus the general concept of dark beers for the winter sounds about right to me.

    As for ales brewed with actual continuity over a millennium there’s little doubt about it. We have the written evidence from roughly a millennium ago, then small fragments here and there after that. Then there’s the piles of rocks I wrote about, and all sorts of equipment and buildings dating from late medieval times up to the last couple of centuries. And the fact that very, very similar brewing practices, surrounding traditions, and nomenclature existed over much of Scandinavia right up into the early 20th century. Plus, the yeast they used is still alive in places.

    In the face of the evidence, fragmentary though it is, you’d find it very hard to argue that there is a gap in the tradition. Or to pinpoint where, exactly, it’s supposed to be.

    This should not be taken to mean, though, that the pre-Christian yule ale is the same as the ones being brewed today. They’re not. But there seems to be no question that the tradition is unbroken.

    1. Thanks for doing some digging, Ron. We had a suspicion that there must have been British Christmas beers and, now you’ve said it, I’ve just found the Shepherd Neame one you mention in your post listed in Frank Baillie’s book.

      1. I think Gary’s right about the folk memory thing, though. There are winter beers, and then there are (contemporary) Christmas beers. Sometimes a decent winter beer will have been given a Christmassy branding – I think that will be what happened with that Shep’s beer (and it happened as recently as the late 90s with Marble’s Wee Star). But the contemporary ‘Christmas’ style – mid-strength brown bitter, perhaps a bit darker and maltier than usual, usually with added pudding spices – is a new thing. (And not a good one, obvs.)

  5. Glad to see the old GBGs are still being put to good use! Phil’s right about the beers being mostly awful nowadays though.

  6. Its a good rule to live by to never buy a seasonal themed beer. Its just the shit the brewery can’t get rid of, cynically rebadged to sell to the mugs making their quarterly trip to the pub.

  7. Sorry, Boak; sorry Bailey. King & Barnes Festive wasn’t a Christmas special at all; no cloves, no ginger, no “weird stuff”. It was simply a strong best bitter – 5% and available year-round. I can’t say I recall them knocking out a dodgy Christmas-themed ale. After all, they had Old to see them through the winter months.

    Following K&B’s demise, Dark Star cooked up their own variation, calling it Festival.

    1. Paul — Festive is a funny name for a year-round beer but if you’re sure, then that means GK get the credit.

        1. I used to buy K&B’s Christmas ale every year in the 1990s, it was sold in Oddbins I think, looking at my tasting notes the bottle conditioned 1996 one was dark fruit, vanilla, caramel and toffee and described as a barley wine. No spices btw. I think I drank my last one about ten years ago, presumably the 2000 one or maybe the 1999. It was 8%. You are right about the origins of the name Festive; it was brewed by Badger for a while when they took over the brewery; Dark Star’s Festival is their homage to it. Was a great beer, got the recipe somewhere.

  8. Eldridge Pope brewed a strong Christmas Ale in corked bottles from 1948 to 1953. I have a bottle that I’m tempted to drink.
    Melbourne (Leeds) produced one in 1959. Shepherd Neame started theirs in the 1950s. Simonds had one in the 1930s.

    Information from Mike Peterson’s excellent website.

  9. Greene King’s Christmas Ale was not in fact named after the festive season, but after a closed-down brewery from the 1950s called F C Christmas in Haverhill. That being said, I had a polypin of this the first Christmas it was available and very nice it was too.

    1. Nick – thought you were joking buy, nope, it’s true. Having said that, GK did market this beer as a festive ale (at least according to What’s Brewing Dec 86) so they were in on the joke.

      1. “Just look at the figures, sir. We sell virtually no beer from mid-January right through until November. I’ve spoken to the marketing department and, well, we think the problem might be in the company name. I know it’s a proud family tradition but, would you consider a re-brand?”

        “Get out.”

      2. Yep, it was a beer double-entendre, but they always claimed they were commemorating FC Christmas and it was coincidence they released the beer in December! Rather tongue-in-cheek, it seems GK actually had a sense of humour in the 80s. I was actually told the story on a visit to the brewery in Bury St Edmunds with a friend who ran a club bar in Middlesex loan-tied to GK. Details are slightly hazy due to free Abbot but I checked later.

  10. I’ve looked through my old notes from the 1980s and find that I came across Greene King Christmas Ale in December 1983. This was in Bishops Stortford and I seem to recall that the pub only had it on for a short time (in polypin(s)) and my friends there watched out for it so as not to miss it, which suggests that it may have been available in the previous year at least. On the same visit I noted that we had McMullens Christmas Ale, recorded as 1065 against the 1060 I have for GK. Other early ones in my notes are Pitfield (December 1984) which was a bottled Christmas Ale at 1055 and Powell (1984 – 1050) which I tried in Etruria so I assume it was a Staffordshire Brewery. Titanic did one in 1985 which I have as 1080 and found in their then pub in Burslem.

    You have to remember that the GBG was not necessarily comprehensive then and one-off beers that could have been on sale for only a few days before Christmas might not be included.

    Ian

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