It's Christmas Eve: The kids finally are in bed. The presents are wrapped, and the bicycles put together. And "Santa," finally having time to relax, might prefer a beer instead of milk and cookies.
Whether it's the Saturnalia of the ancient Romans or the religious observances of today, winter is a time of celebration, according to noted beer writer Gregg Smith. And what better way to celebrate than with beer, right?
Beermakers have historically obliged their customers with special beers brewed just for winter - owing to such traditions as the wassail, which typically was mulled beer: warm ale with spices added. Nutmeg is a popular spice used in today's winter beers, said Nick Jensen, assistant manager at Friar Tuck.
Cinnamon, allspice, licorice and even spruce also are represented.
Winter beers also tend to be stronger, although the higher alcohol content isn't necessarily to aid in the celebration.
"They had to have the higher alcohol to help them keep," said Mike Parkes, owner of the Brewhaus.
"Traditionally, there was no refrigeration." The higher alcohol content acts as a preservative, he said.
And just as each region developed its own regular beer styles, their offerings for winter also varied widely. Parkes said English brewers would have entirely different winter beers than those of the Germans or Belgians.
"They just used local ingredients. That's why each region has its own style. That's why England is a good Christmas beer (region), because they have all the fruits and berries of the Northern climate," he said.
Among the more notable English winter beers are Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome, Ridgeway's Bad Elf series - with five stops from Bad to Insanely Bad based on alcohol content - and Young's Winter Warmer, which doesn't seem to be available locally anymore, according to Parkes, who calls it "one of the world's best beers."
Speaking of warmers, the Huyghe brewery of Belgium makes Delirium Noel, which at about 10 percent alcohol certainly will put color in your cheeks. And not to be outdone in the alcohol department is a rare and highly sought-after Austrian brew called Samichclaus.
"It's only brewed once a year on Dec. 6 and aged 10 months before bottling," Jensen said, adding that Dec. 6 traditionally is St. Nicholas Day in many European countries.
Brewed to order in the Bavarian doppelbock style, Samichclaus - whose name means "Santa Claus" in the Swiss dialect of German - registers about 14 percent alcohol. Parkes says it's not for "your average Old Milwaukee drinker."
"Someone comes in here and asks for it, we always ask, 'What do you normally drink?'" Samichclaus is rare and that strong that Parkes says he doesn't want to waste it.
"Somebody that comes in and wants it ... can't have it because some guy drank two sips and had to dump it out."
The traditional European winter beers also serve as models for those from modern American microbreweries.
"Usually, they mimic somebody that makes classics. They'll go for something and say, 'we want a little more cinnamon or a little more licorice or a little more this or that' to it," Parkes said.
Name virtually any microbrewer and they will have a winter seasonal. Chicago's Goose Island makes a Christmas Ale based on the English brown ale and whose recipe changes from year to year. St. Louis-based Schlafly's Christmas Ale is made with cloves and bitter orange peel.
Sierra Nevada of Chico, Calif., makes the highly hopped Celebration Ale. And Boston's Samuel Adams makes four different winter seasonals: Winter Lager, based on the traditional German bock; Old Fezziwig, a spiced English-style brown ale and named for characters in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol;" Cranberry Lambic, a sour-tasting offering based on the open-fermented Belgian lambic style; and the Holiday Porter, a darker, roastier ale that originated in 18th century London.
Whether foreign or domestic, strong or (relatively) mild, spiced or not, winter offers a wondrous variety of beers to make your little Christmas much more merry.
Story published Friday, December 4, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 7 )