Christmas beer tradition
Christmas beer has been around for a long time. This tradition was imported to Belgium from English-speaking countries, by John Martin in 1924, with his famous Gordon Xmas, a special Scotch Ale. This is produced with the malt and hops left over from the autumn harvest, which give the beer a distinctive spicy aroma and flavour that are just perfect for the festive season. Strong and comforting as a party highlight, this beer is also very popular in Belgium and abroad. As a result, several brewers have imitated this John Martin tradition, producing their own Christmas beer. Yet Gordon Xmas is still recognised as the world’s best strong dark beer!
Spring beers – an old tradition
Christmas beer is, however, far from being the only beer specifically made for a certain time of year. Since the Middle Ages, the harvesting of barley and hops has followed the natural cycles, with two major periods, spring and autumn. The spring harvests, which are fresher but less mature, were stored in granaries until the winter. While people were enjoying ‘autumn’ or Christmas beers, Advent saw the mashing of the grains to create beers that are lighter and less alcoholic, yet more refreshing. They were intended for thirsty workers in the fields.
One such beer, a white beer based on wheat and lightly malted barley, originally produced in the region of Leuven, has enjoyed a remarkable revival in Belgium and abroad. This beer was originally soured naturally by adding lactic ferments. Today, brewers prefer to add orange peel and coriander to create this special taste. Not forgetting the tradition of adding a slice of lemon, beloved by some drinkers. In the Timmermans brewery, the world’s oldest lambic brewery, Lambicus Blanche is brewed from lambic (one of the brewery’s big traditions) and wheat, which give it a special light tartness that is very invigorating and enjoyable.
Other regions, especially Hainaut and northern France, also used to make spring beers, and sometimes summer beers, based on the same unique characteristics of texture, low alcohol content and bitterness. In these regions, 29 March is typically considered the start date for the brewing season. This tradition is also found in French-speaking Switzerland, where spring beer was consumed on Palm Sunday, guided by the Bible.
Fruit and traditional beers
So-called autumn beers are occasionally associated with the beer produced especially for the Oktober Fest in Munich, the largest annual beer festival. This beer follows a strict recipe: barley, hops, yeast, 6° alcohol content and brewed in March: every brewer at the festival must comply exactly with these instructions! However, Belgian brewers like to be more creative. Their autumn beers are often distinguished by more intense bitterness, in addition to roasted and toffee-like flavours, plus a deeper amber colour. Moreover, they have a slightly stronger alcohol content. Beers like this are sometimes associated with IPAs, even though IPAs were originally created for reasons other than seasonality. Or they may be associated with ‘Bocks’, special beers that are mainly brewed in the Netherlands, and which often appear on the market in September. This concept of an autumn beer was apparently born in Canada, thanks to the Indian Summer – a mild but very short period before the cold sets in.
Halloween inspired a number of brewers across the Atlantic to create pumpkin beers. Hence the growing confusion between beers with a genuinely seasonal character, a category in which several of our Belgian specials can be included, and those beer varieties associated more with fantasy and marketing.