For many of us living in Sweden, Christmas is a time for observing time-honoured traditions like lighting advent candles on Sundays, spending mornings before school with our children watching Julkalendern, pickling herrings and slow cooking mustard-coated hams, battling through overcrowded shops and persuading neighbours and friends to ‘help out’ on the big day.
But for fans of great beer, Christmas brings with it a different kind of tradition altogether – the annual release of seasonal beers at the Systembolaget.
This year a staggering 42 beers made their way onto the shelves at the state run liquor retailing monopoly, prompting the question: “what exactly is Christmas beer?”
Many beer aficionados feel that (and don’t tell the kids this) Christmas beers, like Santa Claus, don’t actually exist.
From the beginning they were probably little more than a cynical ploy from large Humbug breweries looking to fill their profit stockings by taking one of their standard beers, shoving a scrooge-size dollop of sweetness, booze and colour in it, slapping a Santa on the bottle/can and calling it something ‘Christmasy’.
The good news is that in recent years, the lack of any real stylistic definition of Christmas beer has led to many brewers making up their own rules. For beer drinkers this is cheery news indeed as we can now enjoy everything from a bock or a Belgium strong ale to an old ale and even a beer that you can warm up!
So if you’re looking forward to a hoppy Christmas here’s a quick wish list of 10 beers worth trying this Yuletide:
Anchor Christmas Ale
This ale’s secret recipe is different every year—as is the tree on the label! Expect an explosion of red berries and citrus, spices and a hint of sap and pine needles (as though someone slipped a bit of the Christmas tree in it while you weren’t looking).
BrewDog There is No Santa
Watch out because this stout from the ‘shock jock’ Scottish craft brewery BrewDog is a spice bomb loaded with gingerbread, coffee, orange peel and chocolate!
Corsendonk Christmas Ale
As Belgium as TinTin with sweet smells of dates, candy sugar, cloves and something mildly medicinal. With an amazingly thick, smooth consistency this beer’s like Christmas pudding in liquid state. Great after-dinner beer with superb ageing potential!
Great Divide Hibernation Ale
A powerful English style old ale with a distinctly American twist. Monstrously large levels of sweet toffee malt flavours followed by an attack of hoppy bitterness in the finish. Not strictly a Christmas beer but a seasonal beer classic since 1995.
A smoked bock (a strong lager) from Icelandic craft brewery Ölvisholt Brugghús. Smells of campfires, lightly smoked meat and fruit and delivers flavours of bready malts and spicy lemons.
Probably the weirdest beer of the season but wonderful along with it. A hybrid of glögg (a spiced mulled wine) and kriek, a Belgium cherry fruit beer. All fruity red wine upfront and then the spices kick in, with cloves and cinnamon leading the charge. Drink it cold or warm it up!
Mikkeller Santa’s Little Helper
A hugely complex Christmas beer from Denmark with intoxicating aromas of orange, cinnamon and chocolate and a velvety body that seduces with its rich, sugary spicy finish.
An imposing imperial porter brewed with a blend of pilsner, chocolate and oat malts together with muscovado sugar and honey. Tastes of melted ‘knack’, almonds and chocolate. A perfect beer to relax and reward yourself with once the relatives have gone home on Christmas day!
Mohawk SnowBlind Strong Ale
Swedish ‘flying brewer’ Stefan Gustavsson has created this strong ale which takes a detour from the majority of malty beers out there and instead delivers an invigorating hit of hoppy passion fruit and pine on the nose.
Nils Oscar Julöl
As Christmas as Kalle Anka, with inviting smells of chocolate, dried fruit and coffee over an elegant and smooth digestive biscuit and caramel body.
Enjoy responsibly, and have a very merry Christmas!
Darren Packman started writing about beer in the UK in the mid-90s. Now based in Umeå in northern Sweden, Darren now writes about the beer scene in Sweden from the inside out on his “decidedly un-lagom beer blog” BeerSweden.se.