Saturday, December 17, 2005

Christmas Beer in Norway - "Juleøl"

Modern Scandinavians would say they celebrate Yule, while the Vikings "drank Jul". And a key part of "drinking Jul" - today as in the year 1000 - is brewing special Christmas beers.
In Norway alone there are more than 50 kinds of Juleoel, or Christmas beers, ranging in strength from 4.5 to 9.9 per cent alcohol, brewed just before the holidays each year. They are darker and more flavourful than regular beers.

In Viking times, Helge Soerheim said, people thought drinking themselves into a stupor on holiday beer and other alcoholic beverages would create a euphoric connection with supernatural forces. And failure to get drunk at a Viking feast was an insult to the host, implying that his alcohol wasn't good enough. Because modern Jul is generally a family affair, today's Scandinavians are more moderate in their "drinking Jul". But the old Viking toast - "to a good new year and peace" - still echoes in the modern Christmas wishes of the North, Soerheim said.

Even after Christianity made inroads, brewing Jul-time beer remained a serious matter. In medieval times, every farmer was required to brew Christmas beer or risk fines and worse. "Everyone had to make two batches of Christmas beer a year, one for themselves and one for guests, or be fined three riskdollars," Olaug Flakne, 31, Norway's only female brew master, said, referring to the currency of that day. "If they did not do it for three years in a row, their farms were taken away, and, if they were also not Christian, they were expelled from the country," she said at the brewery on the outskirts of Oslo.

In old times, Norwegians used whatever was at hand, from juniper berries to tobacco, to flavour the beers. But under the Beer Purity Act of 1516, which was repealed in 1994 but is still heeded by Norwegian brewers today, only malt, hops, yeast and water can go into beer. Ringnes, Flakne's employer and Norway's largest brewery, alone makes 3.3 million litres (nearly 870,000 gallons) of Christmas beer, in 18 varieties.

Not everyone is happy about the connection between Christmas and the brewing of beer. In the 1960s, the Christian Sobriety Society demanded that the name Juleoel, or Jul Beer, be banned. The national brewers' association, however, successfully countered that Jul has nothing to do with Christmas or Christianity but stems from Viking times.

Other Christmas traditions appear to have been passed down from the Vikings. Many believe the "Julenek," a sheaf of grain Norwegians place outside for the birds each Christmas, stems from the Vikings' Jul offerings to their gods. Others say it may have a later origin, such as sharing Christmas bounty with all creatures.

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