Actually, that’s unfair. I’ve got a lot of love for Christmas Beers, as it happens – they cement beer’s versatility as a gift -and the season is ripe for translation in ale. Rich, warming, hearty. Comforting, even. A little special. The season, the mood, the food – I all feel they are genuinely enhanced by Christmas Beers. No matter what side of the craft fence you fall on, you find breweries from Mikkeller to Moorhouse’s , from BrewDog to Shepherd Neame and all points inbetween brewing this loved seasonal special. In fact, I reckon you’d be hard pressed to find a brewer not brewing one (and looking forward to it) most years.
You can’t escape the novelty factor though; its everywhere. The labels, the positioning in shops – both independent and supermarket – puts them aside from the rest, going for the market that doesn’t regularly buy beer but perhaps wants a stocking filler. If I’m being honest, I usually avoid them, but this year I decided to don the Santa hat, attach the antler headband to Wilson, and see what’s out there. Best of British Beer offered to send me a few, as did Shepherd Neame, and I picked some more up from Beer-Ritz and on my general travels.
Stonehouse’s Wit Christmas certainly got things started well. I enjoyed this 4.5% wheat/witbier a lot; the nose backed up the added ingredients added to the copper; nutmeg, clove, orange and lemon peels. Sweet at first – nearly, ever so nearly a little too sweet – it then dries right out on a crisp, citrus-led wave and invites another sip. A golden glass of winter cheer, it’s a different, tasty palate-cleanser after a rich cheese board. You know, when Dr Who’s on.
Batemans’ Rosey Nosey (4.9% abv) is a beer I genuinely like, Christmas or not. I think the way the softly fudgy malt base, plummy middle and crisp, snappy finish that it has is really, really balanced. There’s not much more to it than that, but I don’t want to disparage it by saying that. It’s a good beer, and an easy win.
Back up to Yorkshire for Hop Studio’s humbuggy Noel (There’s ‘No L’ in Christmas, to read the label properly), which occupied much the same territory as Rosey Nosey but with a more muted profile; brown, sweet and with a touch of cinnamon at the finish. Ilkley’s Mary Christmas (4.7%abv) was perhaps the most flavourful of the Yorkshire contingent; a stronger version of the titular pale ale, doused with cheery pine-needle spark and apricot richness. A genuinely interesting Pale Ale.
RedWillow’s Cheerless (5.5%abv) seems to give us the same curmudgeonly vibe as the Hop Studio contribution, but the porter within the bottle had a decent enough dried chocolate/figgy aspect to make you smile whilst hiding its strength. And we all like those baubles adorning the Willow, right?
Bristol Beer Factory’s Bristletoe (5.5%abv) was a beer that, down the last drop, I couldn’t make my mind up about. The label boasts that 7 malts are packed into the mash to give you the deeply ruby beer you hold before you – and it’s tasty enough, for sure. But, for me, the yeast thrusts such a ‘Belgian’ note through the beer that I had to really search to find the plummy ,raisiny notes I knew were lurking within. Don’t get me wrong – it was good – but not what I expected. Perhaps one to give to someone who’s a fan of Flemish reds, in fact. They’d find some common ground; and I got thinking that this wouldn’t be one to pair with the Turkey, perhaps – but a nut roast or herby terrine, if you’re that way inclined.
Best of British Beer have taken the interesting step of collaborating with a few of their local breweries to produce beers just for them. Staffordshire Brewery’s Bobbin’ Robin (with the cutest label of the lot, by far!) is solid enough; a 4.8% brown ale with brown bread and malt loaf in the sip, and a smooth latte-like finish. Cheddar Ales weighs in Mulled Over (4.5%abv), which truly defined the ‘Pudding in a glass’ category; porter-esque in smoothness, silky and sweet, with all the almond, cherry, raisin and cinnamon you could want, before adding a little dose of milk chocolate at the end. Plenty rich for the strength, the quality of the mouthfeel set this beer apart. Lush. Festive Totty is also doing the rounds, if you’re a fan.
I have to set my stall out when it comes to Revolutions Fairytale of New Yorkshire; Wilson and I adorn the label. That’s right; in all of our maudlin black-and-white glory. Luckily for me (very, as I agreed to be the local label guy before the beer was brewed) the beer turned out well; mahogany in shade and woodsy with smoke and oak on the nose, you get a sweet, dark molasses heart before touches of cinnamon pepper the finish. It’s good – there’s a lot of flavour in there for the 4.5%abv – but don’t take my word for it; pick some up from Beer-Ritz.
Shepherd Neame’sChristmas Ale (7%) displays a deft touch. Strong in almost every area, it’s perfectly balanced; sweet, bready malt, figgy, fruity notes and a crisp finish that disappears as quickly as it arrives to leave a sweet, warming taste and feel on the tongue. It’s crying out for a cheeseboard packed with robust cheddars for it to wrestle with. Delicious.
Two villains tied my mammoth yuletide tasting session (well, sessions – this wasn’t an afternoon’s drinking). First up to bat, Backyard Brewhouse’s Bad Santa (6.8%abv), which turned out to be the surprise package of the lot. About as dark ruby as you can get before black and swaggering to the table like the titular drunk, foul-mouthed St Nick impersonator, the beer’s aroma was a knockout; liquorice and molasses in perfect harmony – a dose of blackcurrant too. In fact, my notes say ‘…like those liquorice and fruit sweets’. This theme carried onto the body, where all that fruit was joined by a little coffee and plum loaf, and just a hint – a hint, I say – of woodsmoke. With a little spike of alcohol warmth on the finish, Bad Santa was a really, really strong beer to enjoy for my first taste of what the gang from Wallsall have to offer. I’ll be picking up more from them.
Ridgeway’s Insanely Bad Elf (11.2% abv) is the strongest of the popular christmas beers from the South Oxfordhire outfit, and a sipper it certainly is. I actually didn’t mind it too much, although there’s not much finesse here. Sweet – almost stickily so- has barley twists and pear drops on the nose and the body, backed up by enough sweetness to please a confectionery-shop owner from which those old flavours came from. It finishes up with a little sweet Orange peel to clean things up a little, before a lengthy, bitter finish. But, like I say, I didn’t actually dislike it – perhaps I was getting in the festive mood.
S0 there you go. My thoughts on a small slice of what’s out there. I had fun, to be honest; although I’d like to see more Porters, Stouts, Old Ales and – zipping along to the other end – lighter beers representing Christmas from our UK Brewers. Let me know what you think if you pick any of these up.