The next time you go to your supermarket, take a languorous stroll down the beverage aisle and savor just how good it is to be alive and a beer drinker these days. Roughly since the beginning of this decade, American consumers have finally started to explore en masse the insanely pluralistic beer world that stretches beyond the traditional, sentinel light American pilsner. More recently still, the available beer selection has also started to reflect the rich seasonal variation of European brewing, often with a decidedly American twist.
Light, crisp summer ales recall balmy, carefree evenings; pumpkin ales with hints of nutmeg and clove accent the harvest season and all its attendant feasting. But winter brews, the names of which often hint at Christmas, are some of the most distinctive and satisfying. It could also be argued that they draw more heavily on the European brewing tradition than do summery apricot ales and squash-added fall brews. Maybe that’s because Christmas, permeated as it is by family tradition, reminds the European-transplanted lot of us Yuletide revelers of an ancestral homeland beckoning from across the water.
The bywords for “winter brew” are typically threefold—stronger, darker, maltier—and there is something in each of these that suggests the Old Country. The supple, malty character of a holiday juleøl from Norway’s Aass brewery, for example, calls to mind a snow-mantled, pine-scented stuga, chimney smoking lazily at the edge of an ice-ringed lake or tranquil fjord. The peat-smoke nose and subtle toastiness of certain Scottish ales suggest warming fires and hunting lodges on the edge of the moors. Sampling a dark, sweetish lager of the kind produced by Prague breweries makes it really easy to connect with one’s Central European ancestry—it’s as Czech a thing to do as strolling onto Prague’s Charles Bridge and pondering the statue of Jan Nepotuk being hurled into the Vltava for defending his Lady’s honor.
Not that you have to be European in origin to enjoy the ancestral pull of a good Christmas brew. This probably can’t be proven scientifically, but dark, malty brews have something about them that crosses the blood-brain barrier in a most sympathetic, pleasantly introverted fashion. And makes them the perfect companion for fireside reading, especially those books that merit yearly rediscovery (Turgenev, Fathers and Sons), the ones you started during the summer and have been meaning to finish (Zola, Nana) and the ones you’d otherwise have to be stuck on a trans-Pacific flight to finish (Gogol, Dead Souls; never made it past the introduction). Rich, creamy imperial stouts, porters and barley wines are insuperable inducements to sit down and take it easy—which in itself can be something of a luxury in the teeth of the holiday hurly-burly.
Seasonal-specific tipples are by no means limited to the beer family, however. Northern Europeans are fond of toasting the holiday season with mulled wine, known to the Germans as Glühwein and to the Norwegians and Swedes as gløg and glög, respectively. Owing largely to the Swedish influence, presumably, glög is even popular with the Finns—a people otherwise content to drink cane sugar and water fermented under a 100-watt bulb. Here is a reasonably authentic glög recipe: Simmer 3 cups of water on low heat with the following ingredients: 1 cup sugar, 10-12 cloves, 2-3 cinnamon sticks, and the peel of one lemon. Add 750 ml of red wine and increase heat slightly. Add one-quarter cup brandy. Do not allow to boil.
Mulled wine doesn’t enjoy the same popularity in the U.S. nowadays as it has in the past, but at least one holiday drink never seems to go out of style: eggnog. Broadly speaking (as opposed to strictly speaking, which requires only that the beverage contain one percent of egg yolks to be sold under the name eggnog), the term describes almost any frothy confection of milk, egg, sugar and spices imbibed at Yuletide—and often nogged a little bit harder with added rum, whiskey or bourbon. The drink is descended from a British precursor called posset (the word nog, in fact, is a holdover British slang term for ale), and is closely related to syllabub—you might recall reading about syllabub in Johnny Tremain, a novel much tittered-about amongst the seventh-grade set for the one character named Dorcas. Americans put the stuff away in the millions of gallons this time of year. At a couple hundred calories per cup (with booze), eggnog can be tough on a girlish figure—but it’s nectar for the wintry soul.
Like mulled wine, eggnog seems to breed delightful local variations wherever it’s introduced. In Puerto Rico, where it’s called coquito, locals use coconut milk or juice instead of dairy milk and spike the blend with rum. Coquito’s Mexican cousin, rompope, was first brewed in a convent in Santa Clara, where the good sisters added cinnamon-rich Mexican chocolate, fortified it with distilled grain alcohol, and served it as a dessert liqueur. There’s even a Peruvian eggnog, biblia con pisco, augmented with a locally-produced pomace brandy.
As with everything else that’s rich and indulgent, there’s no shortage of conscience-easing eggnog simulacra out there: eggless eggnog, soynog, fat-free eggnog, no-guilt eggnog. Personally, I’d rather drink something called goatnog than anything called guilt-free eggnog. These philistines; if it were up to some of them, we’d celebrate good times with family and friends by drinking red-dyed glasses of mineral water.