Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

December 16, 2007

Beer Diary:

The Darkest Night

Screw Christmas and celebrate the winter solstice like our ancestors did: with beer.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
I hate Christmas.

No, I’m not one of those people who gets all suicidal this time of year or walks around the mall scowling and swearing at little kids—I save that for summer—but I hate Christmas because most people forget or even refuse to appreciate what it’s really about: the winter solstice.

Humans have been celebrating the year’s longest night for thousands of years, long, long before the invention of Christianity—we’re talking all the way back to the Stone Age, people. The ancient Norse called it jul, Romans Saturnalia, and the Germanic tribes Yule. In fact, winter solstice celebrations were so widespread and popular that as these peoples converted to Christianity they basically kept the symobolism and traditions of Yule and superimposed the Christian story of the birth of Christ over top of it, hence Christmas falling on what probably was the winter solstice 2,000 years ago. The decorated tree, the mistletoe, the exchanging of gifts—these are all traditions that have deep pagan roots.

Since the winter solstice marks the longest night of the year, you’d think they’d treat it as some somber observance, where folks hunker down to wait out this awful, seemingly eternal darkness in the dead of winter. No. Instead, they partied their asses off. And, of course, beer was heavily involved.

Many cultures brewed special, extra-potent beers for the occasion. The Vikings called it Juleøl (Yule beer), and thought that getting completely smashed on it let them commune with supernatural forces. And not getting plowed was the same as telling your host that his beer (or, more accurately, his wife’s beer since she probably brewed it) sucked. A certain Norse king by the name of Haakon even decreed that all Juleøl should be brewed to a certain strength, thus earning him the moniker “the Good.”

The Roman holiday of Saturnalia is essentially just getting hammered out of your mind 12 days in a row. Obviously the Romans usually did this with watered wine, but (depending on which historians you believe) Julius Cæsar found a taste for beer while seeing and conquering up in Germania.

Meanwhile the Saxons, in what is now England, drank to each other’s health, calling this custom woes hoeil (“your health”) or, as we call it today, wassail. Think about that the next time you’re out caroling and you belt out Here We Come A-Wassailing at your neighbor’s window.

So, we’ve established that having a good beer on the winter solstice has roots going back thousands of years. Now all we have to do is to decide what beer to have to celebrate.

If you want to stay traditional, there are several Midwest craft breweries that put out Christmas ales spiked with herbs and spices instead of hops, which weren’t added to beer until well after Christianity had begun its spread through Europe. Lakefront’s Holiday Spice and Great Lakes Christmas Ale are intense, shockingly delicious entries along these lines.

Another route to go would be for dark, warming beers that help fight off winter’s chill. Founders Curmudgeon is a great choice, as well as Bell’s Expedition Stout, Three Floyds’ Alpha Klaus, Two Brothers’ Northwind Imperial Stout, Capital’s Dark Doppelbock, and (perfectly named for the occasion) Surly Darkness.

And if you are one of those folks who really has trouble handling winter, you can either move south, or you could drink summery beers to remind you of warmer and sunnier times. An obvious choice would be a late-season Oberon—assuming you’ve kept some lying around until now—what with a sun god glowing right on the label. And it’s still possible to find some of New Glarus’ Dancing Man Wheat whose relatively high ABV’ll kickstart your summery dreams. Or you could drink another of Bell’s beers made just for snow-haters, Winter White Ale.

Me, I’m into this whole longest-night thing, so I’ve got a bottle or two of Devil Dancer in the fridge reserved for the 21st (technically, the solstice this year occurs on Saturday, December 22, eight minutes after midnight).

So get your pagan on and grab a special Midwest craft brew to celebrate the longest night of the year just like our ancestors did for millennia. Wassail, motherfuckers!

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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