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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

This is Morning Edition. From NPR News, I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Let's take a moment to consider the libations of the season - spiked eggnog, mulled wine, and a nice cold Christmas beer? Not so far out. NPR's Neda Ulaby says Christmas beers are a growing trend.

NEDA ULABY: It's a most wonderful time of the year for beer geeks, according to Jonathan Myerow. The lanky 45-year-old co-owns a couple of Philadelphia bars known for curating their beer list just as carefully as their wines. At the moment, Myerow's quaffing a multi-dark red Christmas ale.

MYEROW: And like a lot of the Christmas beers, it's spiced, often with pumpkin pie spices and other Christmas-y spices. This has cloves, allspice, cinnamon, and ginger.

ULABY: If that sounds unpleasantly like a spice rack exploding in your mouth, you're not alone. Customer Lauren Schwartz(ph), is sticking to regular lager.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BAR ATMOSPHERE)

LAUREN SCHWARTZ: My perception is I don't like Christmas beers, they're too heavy. They're too much.

DON RUSSELL: That is the funny thing about Christmas beers, too, because...

ULABY: That's Don Russell, he's a tireless advocate of Christmas beer who writes a popular beer column in the Philadelphia Daily News, under the name...

RUSSELL: Joe Sixpack, the everyman. Just like beer is for the everyman.

ULABY: Later that night, Russell stands before a classroom of about 40 people.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM ATMOSPHERE)

ULABY: He's teaching about the joys of Christmas beer at the Philadelphia's School of Fermentation. That's one of those places wine and beer lovers go to refine their appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF POURING)

RUSSELL: Christmas beer goes back to the earliest days of beer-making. People were making Christmas beer before there was actually Christmas.

ULABY: Russell tells the classroom that for millennia, farmers around the world have marked the winter solstice by brewing up fortified beer. Some countries, like Norway, took it very seriously.

RUSSELL: The farmers who made the beer had to - by law - had to make Christmas beer with a grain bill that equaled the weight of the farmer and his wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: And if you didn't make the beer, you could be expelled from your farm. Actually until 1950, they had this rule.

ULABY: Another, perhaps more beloved Christmas beer tradition hails from the British Isles. Wassailing, says Russell, was essentially caroling for beer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WASSAIL, WASSAIL, ALL OVER THE TOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Wassail, wassail.

RUSSELL: And it was up to the host to provide a bowl of wassail, which would have been originally a strong ale that had been spiced and then flavored with baked crab apples.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WASSAIL, WASSAIL, ALL OVER THE TOWN")

SINGER: (Singing) A bowl of strong beer, I pray you draw near, Then our darling wassail you then shall hear.

ULABY: Russell has the class sample a modern version of wassail ale from England, Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome.

RUSSELL: What do we think of this beer?

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM)

RUSSELL: To me this is one of these beers that really belies the notion that Christmas beer is big and strong and dark and malty.

ULABY: Russell recently published an entire book about Christmas beers, an intoxicating compendium of winter warmers, triple box, porters, and imperial stouts. One of the most intriguing is called Samichlaus, from Austria.

RUSSELL: This beer is actually made only one day a year, on December 6th which is St. Nicholas Day. It's a huge batch. It takes forever to make this beer, and they actually have a mass to bless the beer. There's a chapel in the brewery, and a priest that blesses the beer.

ULABY: Russell pauses to enjoy the beer's yeasty perfume with lots of honey and lavender.

RUSSELL: It's got sort of like to me some sort of whiskey qualities.

ULABY: A beer, in short, with which to curl up before a blazing fire. Jim Fraser(ph) is a Philadelphia lawyer who's taking the class. He says you can sum up Christmas beers this way.

JIM FRASER: Beer on steroids. I'm actually feeling that a little bit right now. You know, kind of - wow, I've had eight big beers. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Though, Fraser prefers big steroid beers, that's why he enjoyed this Christmas beer class.

FRASER: I'm not a Christian, so I don't really celebrate Christmas. But, you know, I'm going to go home and think about how delicious it was, because it really was.

ULABY: A recent industry study showed beer sales up and wine sales down. That makes sense to Joe Sixpack. Beer, he says, is recession's champagne. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You'll find a list of Joe Sixpack's Christmas beer recommendations at our website npr.org

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