“En été, brasse qui peut … en hiver, brasse qui veut” is a saying that roughly translated “Brew in the summer if you can, brew in the winter as you will”.
The old adage reflects the difficulties faced by brewers of yore – in summer, other work demands, storage of grain from the year before and controlling the temperature crucial to the fermentation process made brewing beer difficult. Consequently, the start of the traditional beer brewing period in Northern France was September 29, Saint Michael’s Day. This was the date when the barley harvested that year could be relied on to be sufficiently sprouted, or malted, to begin brewing. The brewing season then went on until St George’s Day, April 23.
The earliest brews, straight after harvest in September, enjoyed the cooler temperatures of autumn to mature gently for several weeks and came to full maturity around Christmas: this was is the origin of Christmas beer.
Originally, brewers used to have enough of this beer only for their immediate family and most valued customers at the Xmas holiday. Now that advances in technology allow brewers better to control fermentation, Christmas beer is available in quantities for everyone to enjoy.
However, Christmas beer is still only on sale in France from mid-November to late December. Hurry to get it before it is too late!
Christmas beer is nowadays made from the best blend of malts: pale malts, which give it strength, and roasted malts that give it color and taste. It is slightly stronger and more aromatic than other beers because of its rich raw ingredients: the breweries these days generally also add to their Christmas brew extra spices like cinnamon, coriander, ginger and honey.
What is it like? From extensive experiments and tasting, I can tell you that:
- To look at, it is anything from dark amber to brown in colour with a thick, soft and dense head
- To smell it is very fruity, with complex aromatic notes – frequently cinnamon
- To the taste, it is rich, fruity with caramel tones
- In strength it is a little higher in alcohol content than many standard beers at around 6° (but up to 9°).
A consommer avec modération!