“Jul (the Norwegian word for Christmas) stems from the old Norwegian word ylir, which translates into “the person who organizes fun parties”. ”
Around the Norwegian Christmas holiday, special “Christmas beer” selections start popping up around the country. All different flavors, varieties and special editions get tested, tasted, reviewed and enjoyed by beer enthusiasts everywhere. Called “juleøl“, these types of beers are brewed especially for the holidays, and will contain additional ingredients than regular beer and most often be higher in alcohol. The various brew masters with their different levels of knowledge, will come up with a recipe for beer that will compliment the food of their region, as well as display local preferences. An additional amount of specialty malt, caramel malt and colored malt will be used, all contributing to a nice, round and sweet flavor profile. During fermentation, the beer will gain different levels of fruitiness, while the hops with its bitter characters, helps balance the sweetness.
Beer has always been a very important beverage in Norway, and I wanted to understand why this was, and started doing some research. Most of my information I received from “Ølakademiet” (the Beer Acaemy) in Norway, an institution that provides information and education about beer. I really enjoyed the history behind this tradition and I hope you will agree it is a fascinating read!
Beer has been brewed for over 6000 years, and in the old age it was obligatory to brew your own beer, especially in time for Christmas. In fact, people were fined if they didn’t brew beer for the holidays, and if people broke the law three years in a row, they would lose their farm to the king and bishop, and sometimes even expelled from the country. Juleøl however, is ‘only’ about 1500 years old, and the tradition of drinking this Christmas beer is older than the actual holiday celebration. I read somewhere “you didn’t celebrate Christmas, you drank it!” Our ancestors celebrated the return of the sun with strong, good beer both for themselves and their Gods. When the winter days were at their longest and coldest, beer was sacrificed to the Gods in order for the sun to return (of course, we always needed an excuse to drink!).
There was a saying that went “when the beer goes in, common sense goes out, but if you start drinking again, your common sense will return.” Well, then! Why didn’t someone tell me this before?? Tradition read that the production of juleøl were to start 14 days before Christmas, and end on the 21st of December. The best barley was to be used, and syrup, tobacco and sugar had to be added to make it extra strong. Juniper berries and other spices were also included. One of the rules were that the amount of barley used were to equal the weight of the husband and wife combined. I found that interesting. Brewing good quality beer resulted in good standing and was a status symbol. People could gain a great reputation and attract attention for creating an original brew. The brewer was free to experiment and use whatever spices and flavors he felt like adding, depending on what was available in his part of the country. Every region had their unique food traditions and access to different ingredients.
Aass Bryggeri – Norway’s oldest brewery:
The requirements for what was deemed ‘decent’ beer were tough. If there weren’t at least two fights per liter of home brewed beer, the beer was deemed no good. If one fell asleep, it was a clear sign that the beer was not strong enough.
Our ancestors were known to be incredibly superstitious. To keep away trolls and other creatures, and to ensure that a strong enough beer enveloped, they had to follow a number of rituals:
– The brewing vessel was sanctified with a fire
– The first beer was thrown out to the troll powers – here’s yours!
– A knife was placed in the brewing vessel
– A piece of steel was placed outside the vessel
Additionally, the brewing process followed the weather, and warning signs like the moon, sun, wind, high tide and low tide were noted. When the yeast was added to the brew, one had to scream into the vessel to “startle” the yeast into commencing. The yeast was a mysterious product back then, people didn’t really know what it was, as opposed to hops, which were grown all over Norway. The priests also had to drink beer, and if they didn’t get drunk, it was a disgrace for the farmer, and a sign that the beer was cursed and doomed. The witches were often accused of having pissed in the beer (and hence, may be a theory of why we call weak beer “piss”).
The strength of the beer also was a sign of how much people honored Christ and Virgin Mary – the stronger the beer, the bigger the honor. Being drunk was a sign of showing how religious you were, imagine that! The heathen tradition of beer making was adapted by Christianity, and survived the christening of the country because people refused to give up beer and has since become a very important part of our customs in Norway. Additionally, the beer making process was used to christen Norway and put into law by Olav Trygvasson.
During Christmas, people were to keep peace and stay at home. The first part of Christmas was devoted to family, while the second day after Christmas Day marked the social and outgoing portion of the holiday. This is still tradition today with many families. I remember growing up not being allowed to visit any of my friends on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (oh the horror!). Sometimes the Christmas celebration lasted all the way to Easter. As a result, we have a popular Christmas song today that goes “nå er det jul igjen, og nå er det jul igjen, og jula varer helt til påske!” (it’s Christmas again, it’s Christmas again, and Christmas lasts all the way to Easter!) While Christmas naturally doesn’t last that long today, I do feel that Norwegians celebrate much longer than the Americans. That doesn’t take much, since Americans are known for their famous “one day” vacations that they stress about for weeks. At the least we take 10 days or so to relax and observe this wonderful holiday.
Here are three of my favorite juleøl – unfortunately they are not available in the U.S. but be sure to try some if you are ever in Norway in December. Maybe someone will like them so much they will start importing them here?! A girl can always dream… Juleøl is in my opinion a better match for our Christmas meal, which consists of very salty items such as the pinnekjøtt and pork belly as detailed earlier this week, making it difficult for any tannic wines to successfully match this type of food.
Hansa Ekstra Vellagret Julebrygg: Nice and fruity with a round, malty taste. Christmas spices and herbaceous towards the end, with a balanced bitterness from the hops. Good length.
ÆGIR YLIR JULEBRYGG; Elegant aromas of cinnamon and dried fruit, flowers and malt. Similar notes on the palate with a long finish.
One of my favorite new breweries in Norway – as you may remember from earlier in the post, “Ylir” was the old Norwegian word for “jul” (Christmas in Norwegian) and “person who organizes fun parties.”
Berentsens Stelliger Divum Juleøl: I chose this mainly because I’m fascinated at the alcohol strength and still elegance of this beer (a skyhigh 15-19% – more than most still wines) and thought it was worth mentioning. “Stelliger Divum” is latin for ‘starry sky’. This beer has aromas of oak, hay and malt, with lots of sweet flavors of licorice and intensely roasted malt. Complex and extremely concentrated, very nicely balanced despite the high level of alcohol.