Beery Christmas and a hoppy new year!

The Christmas holiday, or the festive season or whatever you like to call it, is a great time of year to knock back an extra malty beverage or two, especially if you are in Norway and have deep pockets. For it is in Norway, folks, that I have just spent a couple of weeks to celebrate with the family, and it is also Norway which happens to be the country on Earth with arguably the greatest Christmas beer traditions and the best Christmas beer. Politicians in Norway have, of course, done their best to eradicate this, and they very nearly succeeded. They raised the beer taxes for the 6.5% alcohol content, at which traditional Christmas beers are brewed, to a level which means that it is now about six times more expensive than petrol even though beer is much better for the environment. Then, to add insult to injury, they forced these beers out of normal shops and into the state-controlled “Vinmonopolet” (which translates as “the wine monopoly”), where such beers are normally allocated shelf space in a rarely-visited and dusty corner behind thousands of fine wines from all over the world.

A selection of Norway's fine Christmas beers

I am very happy to report that despite this, the Norwegian people still love their Christmas beers, known as “juleøl” in the native language, and flock to the wine monopoly to buy them before they sell out, which usually happens well before Christmas. All breweries have at least one juleøl on offer, and some have several. The major newspapers invite national or local celebrities to tasting competitions in late November, and the results, which in Norway for some unfathomable reason are communicated using what most people associate with total randomness, namely the roll of a die, are published with considerable fanfare. A beer which gets a six on the die has been judged to be excellent, and one which gets a one is terrible. Needless to say, the beers that sell out first tend to be the ones that have rolled sixes, regardless of whether this is because of knowledgeable judges or complete chance.

The taster glass
A few years ago I decided that I was old and rich enough to host my very own Christmas beer competition. I invited a few friends, bought a bunch of beer, and off we drank. This was excellent fun, so it immediately became a tradition, and a couple of weeks ago we were gathered again for the 5th time. It is a blind taste, so we taste one at a time, which we rate between 1 and 10, and we also try to guess which beer it actually is from the list of the ones that participate. The winning contestant is the one who gets the most beers right, whereas the winning beer is the one that gets the highest compound score.

Of course, this taking place in Drammen, there’s a considerable element of patriotism towards our local Aass Brewery, and despite the fact that we don’t know which beer is which, we usually manage to secure a first place for a beer from Aass. Additionally, since I like to think that I know more than most people about beer, I also sharpen my taste buds enough to secure a victory for myself. Sadly, both of these traditions were to be broken this year.

We had ten different beers on offer, nine of which were Norwegian and one which was a Christmas beer from my local Ruppaner brewery here in Konstanz, Germany. The winning beer was the Ringnes Julebokk, which at 9% is actually stronger than what is traditional, but it sure was delicious, packed with Christmas flavours such as presents, trees and nuts. A very close second was the equally delicious Aass Premium Juleøl, packed with similar flavours though perhaps slightly less expensive presents. Dead last came the beer from Germany – it tasted like a slightly malty version of an ordinary pilsner, and the panel agreed that – for once – the Germans were barking up the wrong Christmas tree. The biggest shock, however, was the winner of the beer-identification competition: not me. One of my friends actually managed to correctly identify all ten beers, whereas I could only get eight. I blame lack of training on my part, and next year I will invest in much more training time, perhaps a month or so at some high-altitude brewery.
The sheet for tasting notes, etc.

All in all, I was mightily impressed with the choice and quality on offer in Norway this year. I drank an Aass Premium instead of red wine with a superb grilled steak on New Year’s Eve, and I think it was a much better pairing. Why wine is almost always preferred with fine food is beyond me – surely, at least in a country like Norway where wine has to travel thousands of kilometres and beer is brewed around the corner, it makes sense to at least try beer, especially the delicious varieties available at Christmas time.

Well, I’ll round off this post by wishing everyone a very prosperous 2012, and let’s make sure that we raise our glasses at all available opportunities to toast whatever makes us happy and to wish everyone, including the people we don’t like that much, a happy new beer.