2014 has shot by in a blur and unbelievably, Christmas is almost upon us once again. For us that has meant digging out the box of decorations from under the spare room bed, an almost military-scale operation of trying to plan how we are going to visit all of the family over the holiday and me considering taking out shares in the companies who make cinnamon and ground ginger. It has begun.
What we undoubtedly all need to dissipate the stress of all that shopping, baking, wrapping, cooking, planning and decorating is a nice drink. Christmas tends to be a bit of a boozy free-for-all, with a lot of the drinks usually forgotten at the back of the cabinet making an appearance – when else do you fancy a sherry mid-afternoon?! But somewhere between the champagne over breakfast and the port with your cheese in the evening as you duel over the Monopoly board, beer sometimes gets edged out of the picture.
This is a shame, because there are a huge number of breweries producing seasonal festive beers, many of which would go nicely with your Christmas pudding or a nice chunk of sharp cheddar. ICIP took it upon ourselves to sample a few of these Christmas tipples to give you some ideas.
Fyne Ales – “Nice” (5.2%) and “Naughty” (5.2%)
It was great to see Fyne Ales trying something a little bit different to the usual porters, stouts and barley wines on offer at this time of year, and their white IPA and black ale offer two very different drinking experiences.
We know we’re all beer geeks together here, but for the uninitiated – white IPAs are basically the lovechild of an IPA and a Belgian wit, using a wheat base and sometimes spicing. Nice poured with a light, frothy head and had a crisp, light, lemony nose with an underlying earthy hoppiness. It had an astringent mouthfeel with grapefruit and lemon peel notes (turns out it is brewed with fresh citrus peel, so no surprise there), and has a lingering bitterness which will be thanks to its smack of US hops including Citra, Galaxy and Summit. Interestingly, Mr Pip commented he was picking up an almost pilsner-like flavour, and after some research we discovered that the NZ hop Motueka, which is used in Nice, has Saaz parentage. Not just a pretty face!
On the other end of the spectrum, Naughty poured jet black with a light latte-coloured head. We got a red berry nose, which combined both the sweetness and sourness of fruits like redcurrants, and we also picked up a chocolate note. It was highly carbonated and initially had quite a dry, parching mouthfeel, a real charred punch of all the toasted malts – no less than eight different varieties were used, including black and chocolate malt. There was also a hoppy kick from the Centennial, but this gave way to a smooth chocolatey finish and sweet berry notes to match the aroma. Whilst trying to describe the flavour, Mr Pip started talking about the charred roasted peppers we had for dinner the previous evening. I had started to mock him until we discovered that Naughty has been spiked with ancho chillies. I conceded the rest of the bottle to him after that, as it turns out that anchos are known for having fruity flavour characteristics. I’d better watch out, or he’ll have me out of a job.
“Holly Daze” (5%)
Fyne Ales call their seasonal dark amber ale, Holly Daze, “the antidote to Christmas”, making a point of not using any festive spicing, but instead focusing on producing “a refreshing beer to clear the palate”. It pours deep amber with a frothy head and has a malty aroma, with a light stone fruit note and slight caramel sweetness at the back. The flavour is initially quite rich and bready but gives way to a grassy hop bitterness and a clean finish.
Ilkley – Mary Christmas (4.7%)
This blonde ale poured golden with a light frothy head. We got a whiff of nutmeg and cloves on the nose as well as orange peel and some bready, malty notes – a kind of marmalade on toast scenario. It had a relatively high carbonation and a rounded flavour that left a lingering citrus peel bitterness. We also picked up the festive spices again which warmed the back of the throat and also got a hint of tropical fruit, no doubt from the Australian hops used. This married well with the Caribbean rum Ilkley brewed with – a perfect pairing. Light and clean, this was a good foil to the heavier stouts and porters we tried later on.
By The Horns – Jolly’s Revenge (5.5%)
This poured jet black with a creamy head, and had a complex aroma. We got coffee and caramel, and a hard-to-pin-down spiciness that reminded us of rye bread. There was also a sweetness which was reminiscent of a milk stout. It was bitter on the palate with a charred, toasted malt flavour and a quite a parching, dry mouthfeel which was no doubt the result of the addition of some US hops.
Hogs Back – Advent Ale (4.4%)
This ale poured with a thin head, and had an aroma of red fruit and berries which came across as quite tart – almost like cranberries or raspberries. It had a soft mouthfeel with very light carbonation and tasted quite tangy with a slight sourness that was faintly reminiscent of a fruity lambic. It had a dry finish which gave through to a liquorice sweetness, and perhaps a metallic, molasses note too. We were really impressed by Advent Ale and think this could well be the beer we stick with for most of the big day.
Bath Ales – Festivity (5%)
This poured thick and dark, and had a hint of ruby-red in the glass. We got a hit of rum and raisin on the nose, and also hints of caramel, biscuit and vanilla. It had a drying mouthfeel with a bitter cocoa/chocolately note giving way to charred coffee, courtesy of that roasted choc malt, but the bitterness doesn’t linger. There is a vanilla sweetness right at the finish, too. One of our favourites.
St Peter’s – Christmas Ale (7%)
This poured deep amber and unlike a lot of the other festive beers which went in for richer, festive flavours, this had peachy, apricot and even grape notes on the nose. There was a definite estery element there too which translated into a marzipan/cherry pit flavour when we tasted it. It had quite a creamy, smooth mouthfeel and a sharp, herbal hoppy bitterness which almost went through to medicinal towards the end.
Wychwood – Bah Humbug (6%)
This poured without much of a head but had an attractive burnished copper colour when held up to the light. The aroma was unmistakably of British hops – grassy and peppery, with a sour twang – with a slight spicy sweetness at the back and a breadiness from the Maris Otter malt. When we tasted it, it had quite a thin mouthfeel with high carbonation. Initially we got bitter and herbal notes which were almost citrussy or lemony, which gave way to a slight cinnamony warmth towards the finish.
Harvey’s Christmas Ale (7.5%)
We’ve hit barley wine territory – this is serious, after dinner cheeseboard stuff. Harvey’s Christmas Ale poured an incredible tawny colour without a head, clear with a deep reddish hue. We got dried fruit on the nose with a hint of boozy Christmassy spirits such as brandy or rum. It had a smooth, almost oily mouthfeel with a slight, clean carbonation at the finish, and was surprisingly sweet – a treacly, iron-like tang. Despite being very rich it gave away to a dry, parching finish and a lingering bitterness which offset that heaviness. Definitely one for an after-dinner snifter.
Adnams – Tally Ho Ho Ho (7.2%)
Described on the bottle as “an unashamedly strong winter warmer”, we approached this one with caution. It poured deep ruby – an absolutely gorgeous colour – and had a strong aroma of tart green apples and pear drops, with a hint of raisin. The flavour is rich boozy fruitcake with a grassy hop bitterness to counterbalance the sweetness of molasses and liquorice. Smooth, velvety mouthfeel with quite a high carbonation – possibly the result of this batch being bottle conditioned with live yeast. We also loved the label, which trades the usual Tally-Ho horse and rider for Santa and Rudolph. A class act.
Brouwerij d’Achouffe – N’Ice Chouffe (10%)
What comes after the after-dinner snifters? A nightcap, perhaps? We’re bringing out the big guns – it wouldn’t be Christmas without some face-meltingly strong Belgian stuff. N’Ice Chouffe poured a chestnutty brown with reddish hue and a creamy head. You get dried fruit and caramel on the nose and perhaps an estery, bubblegummy note at the back. It is highly carbonated with an almost chewy mouthfeel, and has the distinctive Belgian yeast flavour profile; it is rich and boozy, with a balancing sweetness which may be the caramel character of the malt. Has a fresh, clean finish.
Brouwerij Huyghe – Delirium Christmas (10%)
This poured deep amber with a reddish tinge and only a thin head. We got raspberry, cherry and almond on the nose along with a punch of bubblegum and banana ester notes – all very sweet scents. It had quite a high carbonation and, initially, a silky mouthfeel which gave way to a dry finish, although curiously there was no hoppy flavour behind this. It left quite a medicinal, herbal, almost sour taste in the mouth, but this was not unpleasant, and it balanced well with the rich, Belgian yeast and marzipan flavours.
We were hugely impressed by the sheer range of festive beers out there – there is certainly something to cater for everyone’s tastes, whether you like your high-percentage barley wines, spicy porters or even lighter beers. We’d love to hear what you’re planning to crack open over Christmas – do let us know, either in the comments, on Twitter or on Facebook.
We’d like to take this opportunity to wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Have a fantastic holiday, and here’s to a healthy, happy 2015 to all of you. Cheers!
Full disclosure – some of these beers were sent to us as samples, others we bought for ourselves.