Mug Shots: Swap Santa for Saturnalia

Dec 11, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    Saturday, Dec. 22, 2007, 1:08 A.M. EST, marks the winter solstice. In pre-Christian Rome, Saturnalia was the annual winter solstice celebration that coincided with the feast days for Saturn (god of the harvest), Consus (god of the storage bin) and Opa (goddess of plenty). Even today, in a world fed by agribusiness, that’s fine divine company.

    Many of our holiday traditions derive from Saturnalia’s pagan roots, including wreaths and garlands, donations to the needy, prayers for peace, time off work, and eating, drinking and merriment.

    I’ve been unable to uncover evidence for the notion that the ancient Romans drank beer during Saturnalia, because wine was their lubricant of choice, and beer was for the encroaching barbarian hordes to the north. But Caesar himself surely would agree that facts shouldn’t stand in the way of education, and so it is fitting and proper that we cite the legacy of Saturnalia’s revelry as prelude to a brief examination of beers for the holiday season.

    In the current craft/artisan/micro era, there are two basic strategies for brewing holiday-themed beers. The first category includes ales and lagers that don’t veer far from the norm but are bigger all the way around; most often maltier and more alcoholic, sometimes hoppier, and just more wintry than usual. Examples:
    •Goose Island Christmas (USA)
    •Sierra Nevada Celebration (USA)
    •Samuel Smith Winter Welcome (UK)
    •Mahrs Christmas Bock (Germany)
    Conversely, and in the grand tradition of the Wassail, brewers might choose to spice their beers with ingredients that could include cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, thyme, native berries, bog myrtle and many others. Examples:
    •Anchor “Our Special Ale” (USA)
    •Great Lakes Christmas Ale (USA)
    •N’Ice Chouffe (Belgium)
    •Schlafly Christmas Ale (USA)
    No cellaring is necessary. Drink them now, and don’t forget a few kind words for Saturn, Consus and Opa.

Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit for more beer.