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Supping at Santa's knee...

Michael Jackson has a revealing interview with St. Nick

"Hey, hey, hey!" chuckled Santa. I assume this was Lapp for "Ho, ho, ho!" As he reached to shake my hand, he nimbly pulled me onto his knee. This made me feel rather silly, and probably hurt his knee.

"You had a question you wanted to ask," he beamed. Yes, I agreed. Did Santa drink beer?

"Why?" he inquired, with a glint of Groucho Marx. "Do you have one on you?" It was my turn to be nimble. I responded with another question: which beer did Santa prefer?

He thought for a moment, then answered, uncompromisingly: "Lapin Kulta, the beer from Lapland." This was the correct answer. Santa had been a good chap and favoured his local beer; I shall make sure he gets a present this Christmas.

There is meant to be some mystery about Santa. Even those people who are sure he lives in Lapland are often unclear as to exactly where in the frozen North that is. Their vagueness is understandable, as the region of Lapland embraces Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of the Soviet Union.

If you write a letter to "Santa Claus, Lapland" it will be delivered to a post office that sits astride the Arctic Circle just north of the town of Rovaniemi, in Finnish Lapland.

It was there that I had my revealing interview with Santa. The post office is made of pine logs, and has a couple of reindeer in a paddock outside. Santa has two or three studenty-looking helpers, wearing pixieish red hoods, and I noticed that even their computer was in Christmassy colours.

I had begun my Finnish journey in the capital, Helsinki, then flown more than 400 miles north to the lumber town and port of Kemi, just inside Lapland. From Kemi airport, it was just a 15-mile drive to the fur-trading and gold-panning town of Tornio, home of the Lapin Kulta brewery.

This was established in 1873 as the Tornio Porter and Beer Brewery. The mention of Porter aroused one of my obsessions, but no one remembers when the brewery ceased to produce the black stuff.

It started to use the brand-name Lapin Kulta ("Lapp Gold") in 1963, and began to sell its principal product, a conventional lager, "down south" in Helsinki through the national group Hartwall in 1965.

The romance of Lapland, and the (truthful) claim that it takes its water from the icy Tornio river, has helped Lapin Kulta become the biggest beer in the Finnish market.

Soon afterwards, it was taken over by the larger company. The romance of Lapland, and the (truthful) claim that it takes its water from the icy Tornio river, has helped Lapin Kulta become the biggest beer in the Finnish market.

It has grown so quickly that three brewhouses, of sharply ascending sizes, are accommodated in the buildings. Regrettably, none of the frontier feeling is left in the brewery's modern outer structure.

Without the Lapin ("the British might think it had something to do with the French word for rabbit"), Kulta lager has now entered the British market.

It is a pleasant enough lager, soft and fresh (it is unpasteurised but sterile-filtered), but by no means distinctive. I prefer the lightly malty, tawny-coloured Lapin Kulta Joulu. This "Yule" lager would be what Santa drinks.

In Finland, where the strength and availability of beers is regulated by the state, Joulu comes in two versions: classes III (1042-3; 3.6v) and IV (1050-1; 4.45v). Unfortunately, neither is readily available in Britain.

After visiting Lapin Kulta, and having a lunch of smoked reindeer (about which I kept quiet later), I headed about 75 miles north on my side-trip to Santa.

I must say I had always assumed that he would have favoured Samichlaus, the immensely-strong tawny lager from Switzerland. It all goes to show how wise I am in pursuing my first-hand research to the ends of the earth.

Many nations have winter and Christmas specialities. Strong lagers, and occasionally dark wheat beers, often of double bock potency, are favoured by some German brewers as an early winter or Christmas special. The town of Bamberg, for example, saves its doppelbock for the October-November-December period.

Traditions of malty, strongish beers in various styles stretch from October to March, and across Europe. There are several good reasons for this.

March was the last month in which brewers could make beer before the development of refrigeration. Stocks were then laid down somewhere cool and shady, to be drawn upon during summer, a season in which airborne wild yeasts were just too active to permit brewing.

In the days when the farmers who grew the barley also made the beer, they were too busy, anyway, to brew in summer. After the harvest, they had little work on the farm and were glad to be brewing again.

Malty beers, perhaps slightly syrupy, and with a hint of alcohol in the finish, make ideal winter warmers, of course. No doubt they also drove away the fear of endless nights, and ghosts, in the depths of pagan midwinters.

There is a sense that Christmas beers should have some reference to the cold North. The Belgians serve for Christmas an extra-strong Scottish ale. The Dutch bring out their Bock beer in October-November.

The Danes have two Christmas beer traditions. Children are given a very sweet, malty, high gravity but low alcohol beer to have with a savoury rice dish before the Christmas goose (the same combination is left for Santa). The adults, if they are lucky, get a Jule Brug (Yule Brew) that is a malty, amber-red lager and around 1051.

Beers in broadly this style are regarded as a Christmas tipple throughout the Nordic countries, though the heavy hand of state control has just struck a mean blow in Norway.

Beers in broadly this style are regarded as a Christmas tipple throughout the Nordic countries, though the heavy hand of state control has just struck a mean blow in Norway. There, Christmas beers that can be picked up in the store by the customer must now be of a conventional gravity (around 1043). The stronger type have to be asked for over the counter, as though it were a guilty secret.

One of the nicest Christmas surprises in recent times was the decision of the world's biggest single brewery, Coors of Colorado, to issue a winter beer from its Rocky Mountain home. This, too, is an amber-red lager in the mid-1050s. It has a typically clean but tasty, malty palate, and is called Coors Winterfest.

All over the United States, winter beers are springing up, usually emerging for Thanksgiving and lasting to the other side of New Year.

Anchor Steam began this custom, with the Christmas and New Year Brew they called "Our Special Ale." They also revived the custom of adding spices to such a seasonal brew -- and they use a different selection each year.

As they say in America: Enjoy!

Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: DEC 1, 1990
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel

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