A completely biased guide to Julöl

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Once you’ve finished the Glögg, you make your way to the table to begin one of the most grueling endurance events in the Swedish calendar, the julbord. This joyous occasion at one of the darkest times of the year is a treasure trove of Swedish culture and tradition, from the sheer delight of a full buffet table to the simultaneous love and hate of an orderly queue.

When you get to the table, you’ll notice some dark bottles in the middle. This is julöl – a dark wintery beer that, to many Swedes, is the very essence of Christmas. 

But what is julöl?

According to Swedish lore (the Systembolaget website), Swedes drink light lager for 11 months of the year. However, in the month of December when darkness befalls to good people of Sweden, they begin drinking darker lager. So in its simplest form, that’s exactly what julöl is, a dark lager. It’s not a stout as many people think, it’s a lager that is made with toasted malt to give it a richer flavour and a dark colour.

The origin of julöl dates back hundreds of years and was always produced in winter when celebrations were high and revelers were in need of a special drink to accompany their food which was typically quite salty and fatty. The beer had to be strong to compete with the strong flavours as well as slightly sweet to counteract the fat and the salt. Julöl has remained this way ever since. 

That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of different julöls to choose from and as a newbie, the choice can be overwhelming. That’s why I assembled a crack team to rigorously and unscientifically test 10 different julöls from the local Systembolaget.

To protect the identity of my panel, I gave them code names. We have:

The Old Fashioned Quaffer 

The Session Chugger

The Occasional Dribbler

I’ll take you through the beers, their thoughts and also, a very unscientific scoring system to try and uncover the best Julöl. The best brews would get a score of 5 and undrinkable beers would get 1. 

Oppigårds Winter Ale (5.3% / 500 ml / 27,90Kr)

Most of the panel thought that this beer was quite mellow and surprisingly light given that Julöl is expected to be dense and heavy. Possibly a good entry into the world of Julöl especially if you’re not keen on heavily roasted malt flavour in beers.

Scores

Quaffer3.5
Chugger3.5
Dribbler3.5
Total10.5

Mysingen Midvinterbrygd (6% / 500ml / 32,80Kr)

If you like smoke then this is the Julöl for you. If you don’t, then like Dribbler, you’ll probably find it “strong and burnt”. Unhelpfully, Chugger remarked that this tasted like a German beer he’d had before. Unfortunately he couldn’t remember which one.

Scores

Quaffer4
Chugger3.5
Dribbler4
Total11.5

Jämtlands Julöl (6.5% / 330 ml / 23,90Kr)

While Dribbler found this beer quite sharp, both Quaffer and Chugger found it mellow, with Chugger noting a distinct “caramel and coffee vibe”. Quaffer said it reminded him of a “Saharan hedgerow” which comes close to being the most unhelpful comment I received throughout the entire tasting and perhaps even my entire life.

Scores

Quaffer3.5
Chugger4.5
Dribbler4
Total12

Nils Oscar Alkoholfri Julöl (0.4% / 330 ml / 15,90)

“Insipid”, yelled Quaffer, “it’s like they forgot to add flavour”. I should probably say that although this wasn’t a blind taste test, I didn’t tell them that this was alcohol-free beer. Quaffer saw straight through but Chugger was a little more easy going, “I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I think I can taste pine,” he remarked, pretentiously.

Scores

Quaffer2
Chugger3.5
Dribbler2
Total7.5

Wisby Julbrygd (6% / 330 ml / 21,90Kr)

Our panel thought that this beer was strong and Chugger even detected a hint of spice. Quaffer passive aggressively commented that “they’re all the same really, but this one I would drink.” It’s not a flying endorsement but perhaps it will do?

Scores

Quaffer4.5
Chugger3
Dribbler4
Total11.5

Eriksberg Julöl (5.6% / 500 ml / 17,90Kr)

Our pannel’s comments can be summarised by saying this beer was like a smooth, citrusy peardrop. While they didn’t have much to say, the scores seem to suggest that they like it.

Scores

Quaffer4
Chugger4
Dribbler4
Total12

Sigtuna Winter IPA Organic (6% / 330 ml / 23,60Kr)

This was a hit with at least two panelists. Quaffer said that this was different from the standard Julöl flavour. Technically it’s not a Julöl, but a winter ale. However, I thought it would be good to throw a couple of these in for comparison. Chugger had an uncharacteristic moment of clarity drinking this beer, “Can you have toasted and fruity flavours together because I think we have it here. It’s not toasted fruit, it’s toasted with fruit, there’s a big difference.” Dribble was less impressed however, only commenting that “the acid gets to the back of your throat.”

Scores

Quaffer4
Chugger4.5
Dribbler3.5
Total12

Sleepy Bulldog Winter Ale (6.2% / 330 ml / 22,90Kr)

Again, with this beer, we have Dribbler complaining of harsh flavours hitting the back of the throat, this time it was burnt and bitter. Chugger thought that this was sweet and could work as a dessert beer but by this point, it seemed like Quaffer was thinking of leaving, “I’m not interested in this beer really, it’s more of an irritation. It’s insipid, the only thing you get is burnt malt.” Ouch!

Scores

Quaffer3.5
Chugger4
Dribbler3.5
Total11

Mariestads Julebrygd (5.8% / 500 ml / 19,50Kr)

Here we’re getting dark and smokey with a hint of coffee. I think I overheard Quaffer saying that this was a “beautiful beer”. It doesn’t do much, there’s no hops or additional flavours, but the flavour of the malt was superb.

Scores

Quaffer4.5
Chugger4.5
Dribbler4.5
Total13

Nils Oscar Kalasjulöl (5.2% / 330 ml / 19,90Kr)

“Smells rough, I think I preferred the alcohol free one,” said Chugger while Quaffer was worried that he burned his tongue by taking a sip. Dribbler quite liked it though saying it had a distinctive roasted character that gave a full bodied drink.

Scores

Quaffer3
Chugger3
Dribbler4
Total10

A totally biased conclusion

Despite the heavy bias, the quantity of beer, and the lack of scientific methodology, there are some things we can learn from this. As we went through the beers, there were lots of comments about them tasting the same. I think this is because the toasted malt used in Julöl is very strong tasting and distinctive. The beers that tried to use hops and other flavours found that they didn’t really compete with the malt and left an unbalanced beer. Surprisingly, the cheaper options that focussed mainly on the malts performed the best with Mariestad and Eriksberg doing well in the scores.

Even though the panel was only 3 people, there was often disagreement. So you should try a few and see what you think. If in doubt, our survey says that you should go for simplicity and pick up a bottle of Mariestad Julöl for an authentic and uncluttered flavour that focuses on the malt.  

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