Denmark Celebrates the Start of the Christmas Season with Lots and Lots of BeerDecember 12, 2018
From the never-ending loop of Mariah Carey and Michael Bublé to the weirdly svelte Santa chilling in your mall to the annual Twitter-kerfuffle over a bunch of red Starbucks cups, the harbingers of the Christmas season in the U.S. are unavoidable. In Denmark, meanwhile, the commercialized festivities kick off not with trees and tinsel, but with a raucous, beer-fueled celebration courtesy of the country’s biggest brewery.
At exactly 8:59 p.m. on the first Friday of November, or J-Day as it's commonly known, Danes mob their local taprooms in anticipation of the season’s first Julebryg, or Christmas brew. Tuborg Brewery employees dressed as elves pass out free cases of beer and 25,000 blue-and-white elf hats through all of the country’s major cities. Over the next six weeks, Tuborg Brewery will sell more than 6 million liters of the stuff, making it the company’s fourth best-selling beer for the whole year.
It all started when the first Julebryg hit the shelves in 1981, along with a slogan that roughly translates to “Now the snow is falling. The beer is here.” It was followed by a corresponding television commercial in 1984 featuring a cartoon Santa pursuing a Tuborg truck in his sleigh. The J-Day celebrations themselves kicked off in 1990 on a Wednesday night at exactly 11:59 p.m.
“As you can imagine, there were a lot of young people who missed school the next day because they were out too late celebrating,” says Mads Egeskov Bach, the brand manager at Tuborg in charge of the Julebryg. In 1998, Tuborg shifted the event to a Friday so everyone could nurse their hangovers in peace. Over the years, the hype surrounding both the event and the marketing campaign surrounding it has only grown.
When I visited the Tuborg Brewery in Copenhagen, I struggled to grasp what all the fuss was about. The Julebryg is perfectly pleasant and easy to drink, if not especially assertive—the liquid equivalent of the innocuous holiday elevator music burrowing into your subconscious. How does a mass-produced pilsner still incite pandemonium in a country of craft brewing giants like Mikkeller and To Øl?
“It’s just become a very traditional part of Christmas in Denmark over the years,” Bach says. Like many Danes, he still remembers rushing out to celebrate as a teenager. “I’m from a small city with only one bar. At 18 years old, all of us had to at that bar right at 8:59. So for me, I associate it with being with friends and just having a great night.”
In all fairness, many of our cherished holiday pastimes have more to do with nostalgia than anything else. Critics in 1946 derided Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life as a schmaltzy disaster and fruitcake is subject to endless ridicule and regifting. But come December 25, I suspect you’ll find many of us watching the former and possibly even trying a polite slice of the latter, because that’s just what we do.
Part of the beer’s appeal is that it taps into a Danish tradition of slightly sweet, malty beers that is far older than the 145-year-old brewery. The Danes have been brewing beer to power through the dark days surrounding the solstice since Viking times. There’s even a seasonal tradition of brewing low-alcohol, high-malt dark beers called nisseøl, or “elf beers,” which are left out along with bowls of cinnamon-scented rice porridge to keep the elves from causing mischief—sort of like an ever-so-slightly boozier spin on Santa’s milk and cookies.
Holiday traditions are inherently resistant to change, which is why the Julebryg remains much the same as it always has.”
With an ABV of 5.6%, the Christmas beer is mild and malty, thanks to a triple-hit of münchener, lager, and caramel malts. There’s a subtle undercurrent of licorice running through it, in a nod to Denmark’s national confectionary obsession. Tuborg claims that it pairs well with traditional Danish holiday dishes like smoked fish, fried herring, and roasted duck, but really, this mellow brew would go with just about anything.
Holiday traditions are inherently resistant to change, which is why the Julebryg remains much the same as it always has. Two years ago, Tuborg Brewery even reverted to the original recipe from 1981, which contained a stronger kick of licorice.
“Even the commercial is exactly the same as it was in 1984,” Bach says. Any discussion of changing the simple, childlike imagery is immediately quashed. “We start getting Facebook comments early in the season from fans asking when they’ll be able to see the commercial. As soon as people hear the music, they know it’s Christmas.”
Many of those people were born well after 1984. J-Day may be a decades-old tradition, but it’s just as popular with younger Danes as it with their parents.
“We’ve never had as many people celebrating J-Day with us as this year. The younger generation have really taken to the idea,” Bach says. “It’s a great way to engage and keep a good old Danish tradition alive.”