Today, it is not unusual to enter a bar and find a laundry list of exotic beers on tap or to hear news of a local brew pub or microbrewery opening up. Such was not the case in 1984 (only five years after the legalization of homebrewing) when the editor of the Centre Daily Times approached local lawyer Ben Novak about writing a bi-weekly beer column for the paper. The following excerpt appears in The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution published by The Nittany Valley Society, which collects those columns, the very first of their kind in the United States, and makes them available for the first time since their original publication. They harken back to a time when only a small American subculture had discovered the endless, delicious possibilities of good beer.
Originally published: December 1, 1985
‘Tis Advent, that holy time of the year when we begin to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Infant. In ancient days this time of year was exciting in a much different way than excitement is generally experienced today.
Nowadays, it seems, excitement is experienced as something that is thrilling because it is new, unknown, risky, sexy and dangerous. Today’s young people seem to look for excitement at the edge of life.
But the ancient excitement of Christmas was something quite different. Christmas wasn’t something which happened at the edge of life, but something that happened at the heart of life. It wasn’t a search for something new and dangerous. On the contrary, Christmas was as predictable as clockwork, and as familiar as one’s most favorite feeling. Each year Christmas came on exactly the same day, and everyone tried very hard to do the same things in the same way they had done them in the past.
To today’s young people that might sound boring. And yet … and yet … in those days it had seemed so very exciting. To me, Christmas had always seemed like a challenge without equal. It was an adventure in time. Every year people tried to see if they could rekindle and pass down the same feeling that had been felt on that first Christmas morn.
They all knew and believed with childlike simplicity that something wonderful had happened on that hallowed night almost 2,000 years ago. They believed that hearts had been opened and changed in a way that had never happened before. They naively believed through all the years since then that the original joy had been rekindled again and again each and every year at Christmas, just as it had been experienced on that first blessed eve.
Oh, the excitement of it all! Each year they wondered: Could it happen again? Would it? Could the magic still work? The anticipation grew to the highest levels of expectation and awe: If they did all the same things, heard the same stories, ate the same foods, drank the same drinks, rejoined in the same ways, would they again feel the excitement of their own first Christmas when they were children? Did they still have it in them to unlock all that joy one more time?
The wonder of it! Could their joy be great enough to renew again for one more year the tremendous joy of that first blessed eve in the year One, when the time of our time began? And so, on the 4th day after the winter solstice, when they were absolutely sure that the sun had begun to rise again in the heavens, they celebrated Christmas.
In ancient days everyone had worked so hard to make it happen again each year. They bought presents which they believed would bring out each person’s most childlike joy. They baked Christmas cakes and cookies, worked for weeks to prepare festive decorations for every room and window, searched out old recipes for Christmas goose or turkey stuffing, hung mistletoe in their hallways, hauled in the Yule logs, and brushed up on the ancient Christmas stories and carols to tell over again to their children and themselves. Old fights were ended, debts forgiven and friendships renewed in this season.
One of the smallest and least significant contributions to the annual challenge to rekindle the ancient joy was made by the brewers of Europe and early America. In those days everyone felt the obligation to contribute whatever they could to the annual renewal of the community’s joy. Each year the brewers made their small contribution by brewing special Christmas ales and holiday beers for the season.
The ancient tradition is undergoing a rebirth in America. Since the early 1970s, when there were only one or two remaining Christmas ales available in America, both small and large brewers are taking up the challenge to deepen the joy of the Christmas season by bringing out special seasonal brews.
Christmas ales and holiday beers are normally brewed deeper and darker than beers for other seasons. At Christmas time, one was expected to sip slowly to enjoy the deep contentment of the season and the memories of childlike joy.
As I write this column in advance of the season, most Christmas ales and holiday beers have not yet come on the market. But here are some names you might look for to taste the challenge of Christmas past:
– Aass Jule 01 (pronounced ‘Arse Yule Ale’) from Norway. This is a special, rich, malty, dark lager developed specially for the winter holiday season.
– Noche Buena Cervesa Especial from the Montezuma Brewery in Mexico. This is a Marzen-style brew in the old tradition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is a dark brown, medium-bodied beer with a delicate malt taste.
– Anchor Christmas Ale. This is a special ale brewed to a different recipe each year. It is always a real ale, brewed especially dark, heavy and hoppy for the season.
– Newman’s Winter Ale. This is brewed in Ithaca, New York, as a ‘winter warmer,’ and is a real ale, truly dark and different.
– Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. This is brewed in Chico, California, by two of the most traditional-minded, dedicated microbrewers in America.
– Boulder Christmas Ale, made by the ‘second largest brewery in the Rockies,’ but nonetheless a very small micro-brewer. It is modeled after 17th and 18th century English mulled ales.
– F.X. Matt’s Traditional Season’s Best from Utica, New York. This is an amber, Vienna-style holiday special made by true craftsmen. It is trucked right through Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., Virginia and Colorado, but is not marketed here in the Keystone State. Perhaps we must be more sincere this year in extending holiday greetings to our neighbors in the empire state.
Some other Christmas ales and holiday beers one might encounter in one’s travels are: Hudepohol’s Christmas Beer from Cincinnati; August Schell’s Xmas Beer from New Ulm, Minn.; Fred Koch Holiday Beer from Dunkirk, N.Y. (The Koch Brewery was recently purchased by Genessee); and Grant’s Christmas Ale from Yakima, Wash.
It is hoped that the Spirit of Christmases past will inspire many more brewers to introduce new Christmas ales and holiday beers in 1985 to reawaken the ancient joy of the season. And it is hoped that we all should imbibe them in the spirit in which they are brewed.
Ein Prosit der Gemutlichkeit!
The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution is available in paperback and digital from Nittany Valley Press.