If you were a farmer during the Viking era in southern central Norway, this is the season in which you’d be serving up the year’s juleøl. A few months ago, you’d have brought a large bundle of fresh juniper branches into your storehouse. You’d have barrels of malted barley and malted oats, and if your farm were far enough south, perhaps malted wheat. With Christmas approaching, it would have been time to brew the Christmas beer.
Laws mandating brewing a Christmas beer in Norway existed in the early 900s and ended in 1267. These laws were part of the attempt to Christianize Scandinavia, intended to associate Christmas with feasting and celebrating. Each farmhouse was required to produce an annual Christmas brew and bless it in Christ’s name. All Saints Day, on November 1, would have also been a brewing deadline, and weddings, christenings, and funerals called for fresh beers as well. The amount and strength of the beer served at events was an indicator of social status. Wedding ales and Christmas ales tended to be the strongest brews made during the year, and made from the best ingredients.
If you didn’t brew enough beer for your whole farmstead — including you, your wife, your servants, your workers, and your slaves — by December 21st, you could be fined. If you went three years without brewing, you’d be stripped of your farm, possessions, and money.
Christmas beers were made from only barley, rather than a mixture of grains, because barley produces the best beer. Juniper branches, laden with berries, would line the bottom of the mash tun — the vessel in which the malted grains are steeped in hot water. The branches allow the sweet wort that’s produced to be drained from the mash vessel, leaving the spent grains behind. They’d also imbue the drink with a gin-like character. The beer would be a dark, hearty ale; sweet and spiced with juniper and other spices, including bog myrtle. Hops were yet to be added to beer recipes.
Brewing wasn’t just a procedure to produce beer; it was a ritual approached with great reverence. Burning branches might be waved over the brewing vessels prior to brewing, and crosses might be carved into the wooden vessels to consecrate them. Brewers worked alone at night while the rest of the farm slept. Once the brew was mashed in, they might drive a knife into the wooden mash tun, symbolically killing any evil or mischievous beings who might seek to ruin the brew. (Different regions and times had different brewing superstitions.)
If these precautions weren’t taken, various mythological characters — such as the huldra — might be offended. The huldra were forest people, similar to the Huldufólk (or “elves”) that Icelanders believed in. They weren’t inherently malicious, but Norwegians avoided offending them. Brewers in various places and times in Norway may have sought to ward off gnome-like creatures, called nisse, brownies, kobolds, or pixies, who — from mischief or malice — might seek to spoil the brew.
The brewer remained quiet while brewing, but made a racket when the yeast was pitched. This symbolized the vigor of the fermentation to come. After the fermenting beer was in barrels, the spent grain would be fed to horses, cows, pigs, or other animals on the farm. Some of it might be mixed with fresh grain and used to bake bread. The brewer would withhold a small amount of wort and boil it down. This would be given to his wife the next day to make wort cakes — cake-like baked goods sweetened with wort. A brewer’s horse might get a cup of ale on Christmas Eve, and he might leave out a “brownie cup” of ale so to avoid offending those (or similar) creatures. Finally, some Christmas ale would be withheld and poured on the barley field on New Year’s Eve, to ensure a good harvest.
Nowadays, most Norwegians go to the government-run Vinmonopolet, the liquor store for anything over 4.7 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) for their Christmas beer. Around Christmas, the usual beer selection will be scaled back, and the shelves filled instead with juleøl. This translates as “Yule ale,” or, more roughly, Christmas beer.
Choosing a juleøl takes some thought. Spirits were prohibited by law from 1916 to 1926. Strong wine and strong beer were also banned for a time. Beer is still expensive in Norway, with a high tax rate aimed at limiting alcohol abuse, and discounts on alcohol are prohibited, but Christmas beer is still very popular. Advertising alcohol is also prohibited in Norway, but every year, the Norwegian press prints lists of the best juleøls, so shoppers have some ideas about what to look for. The modern Norwegian attitude towards alcohol may seem odd for a country that used to require farmers to brew a special holiday beer, but times change.
In Norway, there are over 300 different brands of juleøl for sale each winter, and 190 of them are brewed locally. Christmas beers are popular in the other Scandinavian countries and in northern Europe, and Norway imports many of these international beers as well.
Juleøls are served on Christmas Eve with the traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner — usually either ribbe or pinnekjøtt. Ribbe is bone-in pork ribs with a crispy crust. Pinnekjøtt is salty lamb ribs. The Norwegian-American holiday favorite, lutefisk (cod soaked in lye), is less popular in the country, but not unheard of. Juleøl isn’t the only alcoholic beverage served with the meal; you might also enjoy some glogg (mulled wine) or aquavit, the caraway-flavored distilled spirit that’s popular year-round.
Celebrants who go julebukking — going door to door in disguise, singing carols and sometimes telling stories about the residents of the house–will drink even more. The residents try to guess who their guests are, and Julebukkers are rewarded at each stop with candy and drinks. Julebukking, incidentally, is rooted in pre-Christian Norway. Back then, participants would dress in goat skins and carry a goat head with them. This was a reference to Thor, whose two goats — Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóst — pulled his chariot. Additionally, many Norwegians decorate their houses with a straw julebocken, or “Yule goat,” each year.
Juleøl is a beer brewed for Christmas, not a beer style in the sense of being restricted to certain characteristics. However, dark, malty-sweet, and fairly strong beers dominate the category. If you’d like to craft a beer in that vein, here’s how.
Malts and Mashing
Use a blend of pale malt and either Vienna malt or Munich malt for you base malt. You could even use all Vienna or Munich for your base malt, if you’d like. Crystal malts can add some sweetness and a fuller mouthfeel. Around 10 to 15 percent dark crystal malts — at 60 to 120 degrees Lovibond (°L) — will work. At the upper end of both the percentage and color, the beer may have raisin-like sweetness. Some dark roasted malt can add color to the beer; if you add more than about 3 percent, it’ll also add some roasted character. If you’d like to add a fair amount of color with little associated roastiness, you could try a dehusked black malt. For the most roast character, use roasted barley. You can use malt extract, even if you are an all-grain brewer. Wort made from dissolved malt extract is typically less fermentable than wort made from mashing grains, so if you’re shooting for a sweetish beer, some malt extract in your formulation will provide some unfermentable sugars and a sweeter end product.
For a 6 to 8 percent ABV beer, your grain bill should be around 12 to 16 pounds of malt. You should aim for a color depth of 25 to 35 standard reference method (SRM). For a less fermentable wort, and thus a sweeter beer, mash between 154 and 162 degrees Fahrenheit, in the high end of the normal saccharification range. Mash only as long as it takes to get a negative iodine test, and be sure to mash out to 170 degrees. This will stop or greatly slow the amylase enzyme action and “fix” the carbohydrate profile from the hot mash.
Hops and the Boil
Christmas beers generally aren’t very bitter and don’t show a lot of hop aroma. Aim for 24 to 28 international bitterness units (IBU) to balance the sweetness of the beer without making it overtly bitter. Any noble hop or reasonable neutral hop would be fine for bittering. You can skip late hopping altogether. If you do add late hops, keep them under 0.5 ounces per 5 gallons of wort. Boil to reduce the wort to 5 gallons and chill the wort to fermentation temperature.
Yeast and Fermentation
You can make your juleøl an ale or a lager. There are commercial examples of both. If you choose ale, which is more convenient for most homebrewers, pick either a neutral ale strain of yeast, or one that you think will work well with the beer. You should also pick a less attenuative yeast than most ale strains. Make a yeast starter to raise an adequate amount of yeast, but don’t overpitch. For a 6 to 8 percent ABV beer, 2 quarts of yeast starter should be sufficient. Ferment in the lower half of the yeast’s recommended temperature range. You want an ordered fermentation to attenuate the beer to a reasonable amount, while still leaving some residual sweetness.
Fermentation should take about 6 to 12 days, depending on your pitching rate and fermentation temperature. When the primary fermentation is complete, you may want to cold-condition the beer for a week or two before bottling or kegging. A short period of cold conditioning may help “smooth out” the beer. If you brewed a lager, you will definitely need to cold-condition it. Three weeks at 40 degrees or below should suffice.
When to Brew
Anytime from mid-September through mid-November is a great time to brew a Christmas beer. This allows the beer time to ferment and condition to be ready for drinking during the holiday season. You may want to squirrel away a couple of bottles of this year’s batch to try alongside next year’s.
Chris Colby is the author of the Home Brew Recipe Bible and Methods of Modern Homebrewing, and is a contributing editor for Beer and Wine Journal. He lives with his wife and their cats in Bastrop, Texas. Find him on Twitter @ColbyBrew.
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