As the story goes, it was the first Friday in November. The year was 1981 and Danes were about to see their first batch of Christmas beer. The beer was supposed to be delivered to bars on Thursday, but there’d been some delays at the factory. When the deliverymen finally got there, it was 20:59, and as they opened the back of the truck and pulled out the first case of beer, it suddenly started snowing.
Since then, that’s been the annual launch time. “It hits the taps on the first Friday of November at 20:59, never before,” says Gestur Steinþórsson, the Brand Manager for Tuborg Iceland. “We want to create the experience that when the beer lands, Christmas is just around the corner.”
So what is a Christmas beer?
While there’s not really a clear cut definition of what makes a Christmas beer, Guðmundur Már Magnússon, AKA Tuborg’s Brewmaster Gummi, says it tends to be darker, slightly higher in alcohol content than average beer and incorporates some sort of malt flavour, commonly caramel or chocolate.
“Malt is somehow in the mind of Icelanders connected to Christmas,” he says. “We use liquorice. It gives it a little bit of a festive flavour. Some are even using spices. It always has some characteristic that people can connect to Christmas.”
Now into just their second year of brewing their Christmas beer here in Iceland, they’ve seen phenomenal success. However, it has not always been so popular. After beer was first introduced to Iceland, “in ancient times, 20 years ago,” Gummi jokes, Tuborg tried to establish Christmas beer in the market given its success in Denmark, but it didn’t take off.
Gummi believes it stalled because at the time there was no real tradition for it. Over the last ten years however, as the beer culture in Iceland has grown, so has the popularity of Christmas beer.
The launch of the Christmas beer has become an important date on the Icelandic social calendar. “Groups of people go to the liquor store and buy all the Christmas beers. They sit around and taste them, and everyone has an opinion on it,” Gummi says. “Oh this is the best one; no this is the best one. It’s really a big thing.”
Getting the timing right
In anticipation of the festive season, the brewing process begins as early as September and takes about three weeks. Because Iceland is such a small market, the minimum purchasing and importing quantity for materials such as hops and even beer cans is very high, making it unrealistic to brew just a little more if their supply runs out.
And runs out it does. For Christmas 2011 they had brewed twice as much as much as the year before, but to their surprise, it still sold out by mid December. “If you’re not quick, it’ll sell out before you can try it,” he warns.
Further complicating matters is the fact that government regulations mean seasonal beers cannot be sold beyond January 6. “So if we have anything leftover we have to discard it. For us it’s critical to have enough, but not too much,” Gummi says.
Given they’re just into their second year brewing Christmas beer onsite in Reykjavík, the men are still yet to come up with a formula to determine how much to brew.
“We just haven’t found the right balance yet. It’s sort of like,” Gestur licks his finger as if checking the wind direction. “But we’re always getting closer.”