Fruitcake, is perhaps the most feared of holiday gifts. Who eats it? Certainly not beer drinkers. Beer lovers hope for six packs of beer, and if very good over the past year they hope their reward will be a “big beer,” one with sufficient body and alcohol to ward off the cold chill of winter. But, surprisingly, it was fruitcake that gave mid-winter brews such distinctive character.

Describing holiday beers (aka Winter Warmers, Wassails or Christmas beers) presents the beer world with one of its greatest challenges. Brewers, writers and beer enthusiasts who hotly debate the profiles of other styles often surrender when it comes to winter beers. You can see them shrug their shoulders, smile, take another long draught, smile again and finally say ‘Damn, that’s a good beer.”

Otherwise they simply don’t have much to say, but why?

To understand how holiday beers came to span such a wide creative spectrum requires a trip far back in beer time. In the days before hops made their debut as a beer preservative, somewhere around 650 AD, brewers often resorted to mixes of herbs, spices, and even tree bark and peppers to help stabilize their brews.

Therein lies part of the story of holiday beer’s origin, but the taste of the winter solstice sprung from more than a practical brewing method.

Way back in our collective past the seeds of winter festivals were planted by the Romans. As days became short the Romans honored and toasted the god Saturn with feasts, parties, and celebrations known as Saturnalia. Other early cultures also rejoiced at the coming winter. Beyond the northern reaches of the Roman empire, the Norse reveled each year at the approach of the longest night with days of wild, beer-laden celebrations.

But the party couldn’t last forever, by the middle ages the church was gaining control over most of Europe.

Pagan roots didn’t die easily and it caused vexing problems for the nobility. Norwegian king Hakon the Good was one who wrestled with being a good Christian while longing for the simpler days of the original festival.

Hakon resorted to an example set by the church itself; when the church wanted to attract people to worship they promised a keg of beer after services. They called it a church-ale, and parishioners showed up in droves. What better compromise than a religious rite and a simultaneous feast. As for the length of the combined holiday, Hakon thought it only fitting that it last as long as the beer flowed.

During Britain’s fifth century, a local overlord by the name of Vortigern played, by some accounts, a part in Wassail getting its name. According to legend, his Saxon subjects presented him a bowl of ale during a feast. As he raised the bowl, they shouted the proclamation “Louerd king woes hoeil,” which translates to “Lord King your health.” It was the Saxon custom for friend to greet friend with ‘Wassail’ to which the other responded, ‘Drinc Hail.’ Eventually, the term Wassail was related to the entire fun making around the holidays.

Centuries later, the ale brewed for the winter festivals met a spiced loaf called Yule cake. A slice of the cake was placed in the bottom of the bowl and warm ale floated it up toward the brim. Participants then passed around the cup with merriment until both the ale and Yule cake were gone. The cup  was repeatedly replenished until all were gloriously incapacitated.

To join in on the old Wassail custom, modern day revelers can follow one of the original recipes. Get a large bowl, add a half pound of sugar, pour in a pint of warm beer, followed by a sprinkling of nutmeg and ginger (grated), and mix in four glasses of sherry. Top this mixture off with five pints of beer. Place it aside for a few hours. Just before serving set several thin slices of toast, or fruit cake, afloat, along with a few slices of lemon.

Another variation in Anglo-Saxon times was called “Lamb’s Wool” and was made with roasted crab apples and spices. It joined literally scores of variations on the theme of holiday beers. Nearly every region or town had its own highly prized recipe.

As time passed brewers saw an opportunity to “pre-mix” winter beers for pride and profit. No fools the brewers, they derived formulations which closely resembled the local style favored by their patrons.

Normally a brewer strives for consistency in styles, with only subtle deviations exhibiting the brewer’s skill and creativity. Winter Warmers are different, – they seem to embrace diversity. In a brewery’s standard beer, such irregularity would be unacceptable, but it’s almost expected in Winter Warmers. In fact, a significant number of  breweries push the style farther, and deliberately vary their recipe from year to year. Despite the variance, the profiles will display some common characteristics.

Winter warmers tend to be stronger than other beers in a brewery’s year-round stable. They usually run from cooper to deep amber hues. Spices most commonly applied include nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice, but some dig deeper into the spice rack for clove, ginger, licorice, molasses, coriander, Curaçao and others. Any or all of the spices may leap out of the bouquet in a virtual spice imitation of dry hopping.

Not all brewers use spice additions however, Germany, home of the Reinheitsgebot, tolerates no ingredients other than malt, wheat, hops, water and yeast. Breweries in Germany modify their traditional Märzen or bock beers to produce a holiday ‘festbier.’ Following the purity code of 1516, brewers rely on high alcohol to induce a faux spiciness.

Working in harmony, the elevated levels of alcohol and generous additions of spice reap several benefits. Winter warmers as a class roll across the tongue with dizzying complexity, and the aroma captures fond memories of grandma’s fresh baked pies.

Some enthusiasts insist holiday beers should only be served at cellar temperature, but for a true adventure in taste try them cold in a snifter. Don’t drink too fast. Slowly nurse the glass and you’ll be rewarded with a cornucopia of flavors and aromas. Allowing the beer to warm in cupped hands releases ever growing character in much the same way a blossom opens in spring.

Of course holiday beer generates another benefit from its high alcohol and spice content. Most examples will cellar well over a period of several years. They require no more care than cool, dark storage.

This year seek out your favorites and purchase a quantity well in excess of what you expect to consume. Put away a few extras for cellaring and you’ll be the envy of fellow enthusiast’s next year. Give the others away as welcomed gifts. Your friends will declare you the hit of the party and it sure beat fruit cake.

Copy right Gregg Smith – his latest book, American Beer History is available on Amazon