Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
It's true, I'll admit it, I don't like Christmas beer. I mean, why take a perfectly good concept and then add frankly bonkers ingredients such as nutmeg and cloves to a beer that was probably more than acceptable before you did. Despite my best advice, a vast majority of the worlds breweries release a strong, spiced, Christmas themed beer at this time of the year so I figured that they must have some appeal and that, to avoid me spouting purely hypocritical nonsense that I would valiantly brave at least three Christmas beers so that when it turns out that I really don't like them that I can accusingly sledge anyone who is foolish enough to actually drink them. So, three Christmas themed beers then, there's no way in hell I could possibly like one of them, is there?
Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale - 7% ABV
I was bemused when this bottle of beer turned up on my doorstep, 'how did they get my address?' I pondered and then a fear took hold of me. Were they watching me, were they after a taste of my blood? I shut the curtains and gazed at the sickeningly festive red and gold label, hops locked arm in arm with holly, like a pair of colleagues who've nipped to the bogs at the office Christmas party for a bit of a drunken fumble. I peer out the curtains, I'm sure I see a man outside in a filthy overcoat drinking a bottle of Spitfire, his empty eyes staring back at me. I pour the deep amber liquid into my glass, there is a pleasing ruby red tinge as I hold it up to the light and the lingering foamy head is already starting to lace its container. It smells somewhere between raspberry jam and marmalade with evidence of spicy British hops prickling the back of my throat. This is a con, I think, where are the unnecessarily copious amounts of winter spice, I've been had, this nation of beer drinkers won't stand for this. Those raspberry notes are prevalent when I take my first gulp, with tart fruit alongside demerara sugar. There's a slight vinous edge to this beer that may become more prevalent if this beer had a bit of age on it, the finish is sharp and slightly astringent. This beer lulls you into thinking that it's a Christmas beer but in reality it's a solid strong British bitter. If this Christmas day you desire getting completely trollied on something that has a bit more class and strength than say, Directors or Pedigree, then I would wager you might enjoy this.
If you like the sound of this then why not try... Adnams Broadside, a dependable strong British bitter if ever there was one and one that doesn't need to hide it's strength or deliciousness behind a sparkly seasonal label.
East London Brewing Company Oddbins No1 - 5.5% ABV
I have a lot of respect for what Oddbins are doing at the moment. They've taken their chances by stocking gear from not long established breweries and this has paid off in spades. The off licence chain has seen a 179% growth in 'craft' beer sales this year and this has been achieved by simply selecting a great range of beer, piling the shelves high with it and keeping those shelves piled high with offerings from more breweries being added regularly. My local Crouch End branch has become my go-to bottle shop and so it seems fitting that this beer, the first in a series that Oddbins will be brewing with their suppliers, was a collaboration between East London Brewing Company (ELB) and Dave Groves, manager of the Crouch End branch. The label is pleasingly simple, instead of
hyped-up Christmas branding it maintains the slick modern-yet-classic look of the other ELB bottles. It's described as a 'winter ale infused with festive spices' I'm beaming at the lack of the C-word and there is a little picture of each spice used in the brew on the opposite side of the label. From this I now know that this contains cinnamon, ginger, cloves, orange peel, nutmeg and vanilla. Oh dear, this really isn't going to be my cup of tea. When I get the bottle home I'm too eager to find out if I like it or not and I rip the cap off and pour out a murky, copper coloured liquid that fails to produce much of a head or much carbonation at all really. There's nothing intrinsically wrong here, it was brewed less than a month ago and needs more time in the bottle to develop some clarity and fizz (Dave has confirmed with me that this beer is now nicely conditioned and ready to drink.) The nose is dominated by cloves with a little bit of nutmeg and cinnamon creeping around the corner and a hint of that orange peel on its shoulders. It tastes pretty much like it smells with those cloves dominating throughout but that lingering, pithy orange note helps balance an almost medicinal quality from the spice. I would have loved a touch more sweetness from this beer, it has a very dry finish and I think a touch more sweetness would have really rounded off the edges. I also think that a year in a decent cellar will work wonders for this beer, all of those big, spicy flavours would be given the chance to mellow and develop so why not buy a case for Christmas and save a few bottles and see how it tastes next year. Oddbins No1 should be available at your local branch now, please let me know what you think if you get to try some yourself.
In all honestly, this isn't my kind of thing but I'm proud of myself for having a fair crack at it. If you are a fan of spiced winter ales then this will probably be right up your street.
If you like the sound of this then why not try... Anchor Christmas Ale, the quintessential holiday beer that's brewed to a slightly different recipe every year. This is also a great beer with a few years of age on it.
Brasserie D'Achouffe N'ice Chouffe - 10% ABV
What better way to finish up a day of Christmas drinking than with a big, strong Belgian and I'm not talking about Jean Claude Van Damme. I'm a huge fan of other Achouffe beers, especially their Houblon Chouffe IPA so I'm eager to get my chops around this one. The labels on the Achouffe beers are from another world (that beautiful piece of no mans land between Belgium and Luxembourg) and another time (the 1970's) and may seem daft but for me this carefree humble charm is part of what makes Chouffe beers so bloody brilliant. This pours a beautiful russet brown and produces a huge, lively head of foam. Although this beer is spiced with thyme and cura
çao it doesn't have an overly herbal aroma or taste, instead it's beautifully balanced with brown sugar mingling with the estery redcurrant flavours produced by the yeast as this beer fermented. Despite it's strength it drinks easy and the almost port-like quality makes this a super after dinner sipper. If you're into pairing I'd say this would work well with a nice piece of Stilton or perhaps a Dr. Who Christmas special. It's not my favourite beer in the Chouffe range but it is a damn good beer, in fact it's so good it would be a shame to only drink it at Christmas so I've gone and bought enough to see me through well into the New Year.
If you like the sound of this then why not try... Delirium Christmas, there is a raft of Christmas beers available from the Belgian breweries and like us in the UK they think it's perfectly acceptable to throw in any old spice and spruce up the label this time of year but I do have a soft spot for that little Pink Elephant in his little Santa hat. Just look at him, he's having an absolute whale of a time.
So there you go, I've had a crack at Christmas beer and low and behold I actually discovered one I quite enjoyed. In all honestly I'll probably be snuggling up on the big day with a case of Beavertown Gamma Ray a bottle of sherry, probably an Amontillado and a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask because I'll get bored if I just drink beer all day. Merry Christmas to all of you, my readers, you utterly beautiful bastards.
Thanks to Oddbins and Shepherd Neame for letting me have some of their beer to drink and write about. Thanks to Beer Ritz for sending me a bottle of N'Ice Chouffe in exchange for money.