Treasured food and drink pairings like champagne and smoked salmon, port and Stilton, and sherry or whiskey with dried fruit and nuts are all associated with the festive season, while few aspects of our existence seem quite as ritualised as getting pissed at the office party or quietly sipping brandy around the fire with friends and family. Like it or not, Christmas is as inextricably linked with booze as it is to the mistletoe, Santa Claus, and depraved mothers ramming you up the backside with prams on the High Street.
Even in the worst of economic climates, it is seen as a time of extravagance and indulgence and, as a result, one where the seemingly humble hop gets neglected. It seems like as soon as December rolls around, we become a nation of wine snobs and whisky aficionados, but beer makes as fine a tipple now as it does the eleven months of the year we lap it up with such gusto. Some basic seasonal rules apply – in winter, this generally amounts to the darker and stronger the better – but mostly it’s a great excuse to sample some really special brews.
We think nothing of paying £15 for a bottle of really good plonk this time of year; why do we object so feverishly to the idea of paying a similar amount for similar sized bottle of similar strength alcohol? With that in mind, here’s a shortlist of ten world class brews – in absolutely no order – to be savoured now and in the months to come. Let’s make sure that a healthy dose of seasonal tradition doesn’t get to the point where Christmas becomes a mindless cliché.
1. Young’s Winter Warmer (5.2%) – Young’s offer solid, tasty examples of most styles of beer and this rich amber ale is no exception. Subtle malty aromas lead to a deceptively complex palate dominated by notes of liquorice and caramel. A good choice for the relatively unadventurous.
2. St Peter’s ‘The Saints’ Whisky Beer (4.8%) – The official ‘Marmite’ beer of The Jerusalem Tavern and parent brewery St. Peter’s, you either love or hate The Saints, but there are enough people in the former category that it’s often sold out at the aforementioned pub. Reminding of an Islay whisky, it’s medicinal on the nose, while the palate contains notes of smoky bacon and vanilla. The finish is clean, with a slightly sweet taste lingering in the mouth of this decidedly cockle warming beer.
3. Meantime Chocolate Porter (6.5%) – Struggling with what to drink with that lovely Christmas pudding Nan’s making? Well, if you don’t fancy spending over £20 on a decent bottle of Pedro Ximinez, you could certainly do worse that picking up a few bottles of this indulgent chappy. Meantime’s experts tell me to think about as more than just a desert beer and as a possible partner to stews and even chilli con carne. I can definitely see that, especially if venison is involved. But really, this is a desert beer, and a great one. Is it really any surprise that my tasting note reads simply: chocolate, chocolate, lots of dark chocolate? Lots of people try to do the whole chocolate stout/porter thing, but very few get it right. Meantime have set the benchmark.
4. Sam Adams (4.7%) – First things first: I’ve got a major bias to declare here. As a born and bred New Englander, this is one of those things that – like buffalo wings, clam chowder, and angry 3rd generation Irish policemen – takes me back to my misspent youth in Massachusetts. Shameless nostalgia aside, it’s also a really, really great beer. Dark golden in appearance and packed with nicely spicy hops, the slightly sweet, malty undertones are complimented beautifully by the more dominant floral flavours, and a pleasant level of bitterness lingers on the palate after quaffing. If you insist on drinking lager at this time of the year or want a safe option for a party, this is surely your best option: part complex English ale, part top-quality Czech pilsner, it’s as refreshing as any other lager, just infinitely more interesting.
5. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale (6.8%) – This seasonal offering from craft brew pioneers Sierra Nevada generates a seemingly endless amount of debate, but everyone is just about able to agree that it’s world-class. An American IPA, it’s unsurprisingly dominated by hoppy, citrusy notes and is light amber in colour. The real surprise – and master touch in my opinion – comes when all the usual flavours are superseded by something that’s a mixes floral notes with a lasting bitter finish: grapefruit and orange zest were what first hit me, but the taste that lingered on my tongue was pine, as seasonal a taste as you can get. IPAs are often best enjoyed in the warmer months, but this one defies traditional logic.
6. Inedit (4.8%) – A joint effort between the fine folks at Barcelona’s Estrella Damm brewery and one of the world’s most feted chefs, Ferran Adria. Allegedly the “first beer specifically created to accompany food” – in the festive spirit, I won’t take issue with the marketing guff – it’s flavoured with coriander, orange peel, and liquorice and the spice is the first thing to hit you on the nose. On the palate, however, these flavours are noticeably subdued, the result being a clean tasting, marginally citrusy beer that reminds of continental wheat beers. A fiver from John Lewis when I bought it, it offers a little of Adria magic without being totally eye-opening, but tell your guests of its provenance and you’re sure to move up in their esteem.
7. Magic Rock Dark Arts Surreal Stout (6%) – One of the more complex stouts available in the UK, this rises above the normal stout flavours of coffee and chocolate. They are present to an extent, of course, but so too are dried fruit notes – raisins and figs most obviously. In common with other high-quality and relatively high-alcohol stouts, it leaves a slightly sweet taste in the mouth alongside a tingly bitterness. Certainly not one to braise your beef in, it would make an ideal accompaniment to hearty red meat stews and casseroles as well as, if you’re lucky enough, oysters.
8. Brew Dog 5 A.M. Saint (5%) – All Brew Dog beers are good, some border on legendary, and a few are already iconic. As good an amber ale as I’ve tried to date, 5 A.M Saint boasts a sharpness that clearly points to Brew Dog’s affinity for American-style microbrewing, but it’s the flavours that really lift this above your average amber ale. Wonderfully fruity, the dominant notes are of grapefruit and strawberry, but it’s all well integrated and any subtle sweetness never compromises the fact that this is a hop bomb in the best possible way. At 5% and given the fact it’s Christmas, this qualifies as a session drink, so if you’re lucky enough to spy some on the shelf of a good off-license or supermarket near you, grab a six pack so when the missus drags you round the neighbours you don’t end up with a tin of Fosters.
9. Kernel Export Stout 1890 London (7.7%) – Kernel in Bermondsey is one of London’s best breweries. Its pale ale is something of a classic, but for the grimmer side of the calendar the Export Stout is the perfect brew to accompany you to the fireside. Ridiculously flavourful, the healthy whack of alcohol gives it (and you) a noticeable warmth while on the palate it reminds a bit of rum and raisin spiked cheesecake. The customary coffee flavours are especially roasty, the jet-black colour is particularly oil-like, and it arguably rises above even the excellent Magic Rock stout by virtue of it distinct earthy qualities, including notes of leather. This would make a fine accompaniment to rich puddings and a more than adequate substitute for dessert wine.
10. Millwhites Rum Cask Cider (7.5%) – A token nod to beer’s often sneered at cousin. Millwhites do an exemplary range of genuine ciders and pop up at various Farmers Markets in London, meaning even us urbanites are able to get a taste of the country amidst our beloved smog. This particular premium, medium cider is aged in Jamaican rum barrels, giving it an oaky flavour that smoothes out the tart edge from the apples. Brown sugary sweetness and a distinctive, intermittent rum kick make this one of the more interesting ciders out there, perfect if you’ve got an Uncle from the West Country or just fancy a change from beer. It probably won’t win over everyone but is definitely worth a shout if you’re enthusiastic about fermented apples.