The Deep Tradition of Norwegian Yule Ale

A Christmas brew was once mandated across Norway—and Yule ale remains a strong traditional element of the Christmas meal.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Eireann

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. 

Mandatory Brewing

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.



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