There’s a reason that every season brewers crank out limited supplies of specialty beer, and this year is no exception. As the fall selection varies from pumpkin sweet to spicier, heavier ales, the winter varieties continue to linger with some of the spices of the previous season. Mix in a holiday chocolate or vanilla stout, or a strong Belgian ale, and you have all the makings of a wonderful winter of beer. December 22nd marks the official beginning of winter and is a month chockfull of celebrations, be it Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve, or even Festivus (for the rest of us). With so many local and craft brews to choose from, how it all started might help you decide.
Beer is one of the oldest drinks in the world, approximately 6,000 years old and said to have its beginnings in Mesopotamia, where women were primarily brewing this ancient libation. Revered in Egyptian society 5,000 years ago, beer was a magical drink that treated illnesses and was given as a gift to the pharaohs. Bishop Nikolaos of Myra, a Greek bishop in the fourth century in what is now Turkey, is one of the patron saints of beer and brewing, along with Saint Wenceslas, Saint Brigid, and Gambrinus, King of Flanders. Gambrinus was reputed to have introduced the toast (of the clinking glasses kind, not the bread) and who invented hopped malt beer. Not a true patron saint, Gambrinus is regarded as one by many a brewer and beer lover.
It wasn’t until the rise of Christianity in Europe where the production of beer picked up. Beer was brewed by monks in monasteries, hence the creation of the trappist beer. Believe it or not, this Middle Ages tradition still lives on in the Trappist abbeys. There are only seven Trappist breweries in the world that are recognized by the International Trappist Association. How do you know if you are drinking a true Trappist beer? While a bottle of beer may have a rendering of a monk on its label, the only way to know is to look for the Authentic Trappist Product logo. Otherwise you’re drinking a trappist-style beer, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s always good to know what is authentic and what is not. Who wouldn’t love beers from breweries whose profits go to assisting others? Not one Euro is made to pocket — only for the continuation of brewing ingredients, supplies and to charities.
Remember good old Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, or St. Nick? Well, the very same Saint Nikolaos of Myra was the inspiration for what would morph into the tradition of Santa Claus whose evolution took shape in the 19th century. Saint Nicholas, St. Nick for short, was known for secretly giving gifts back in the 4th century. He is revered by the Catholic and Orthodox Christian faiths and honored in some Anglican and Lutheran Churches. Saint Nicholas Day occurs every December 6th, a day still celebrated in European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. In other cultures he is frequently depicted as having a beer in hand, a concept that might seem contradictory and blasphemous to Americans. Imagine the idea of a jolly white bearded man, dressed in red, riding on a sleigh, sliding down a chimney and giving gifts to the good children of the world — with a glass beer in his hand! In this day and age, would he be cited for drinking and flying on a sleigh? Is that belly really a beer belly and not because he eats so many cookies left for him in one evening? Who’s to know?
While the monks keep brewing in Europe and Santa is now kiddie-friendly, a Jewish craft brewery from California, He’Brew, started out as a Chanukah ‘experiment’ in 1996 is now gaining notoriety by winning awards and rated as a top 100 brewer by beer magazines and websites. They give their beers witty names like “Messiah Bold,” “Genesis Ale,” “Jewbelation” to name a few. Their beers are kosher and include ingredients such as figs, dates, and pomegranate, fruits drenched in Jewish symbolism. The seasonal beers change based on the barley and hop harvests in the fall, and the new year’s of Jewish tradition.
As we look at the history of beer and its connections to faith, you don’t have to ascribe to any religion to enjoy a delicious glass of a Belgian dubbel, tripel or a an imperial amber ale made with pomegranate juice. You don’t have to believe in anything except the wonderful concoction right in front of your very eyes. If you aren’t sure which kind to choose, go to one of the many local beer stores and you will be guided to the right taste for you.
Alas, another year draws to an end. The month of December tends to be one not only of celebration and tradition, but one of reflection of the past 364 days. So in the historic tradition from the King of Beer himself, Gambrinus, let’s raise a glass of beer and toast to health, wealth, and hoppiness! Cheers!
–Adapted from the December issue of Table Hopping