Thursday, 16 January 2014

Christmas beers

Yes, it’s mid-January and I’m still writing about Christmas beers. I’m way behind with blogging, so for the foreseeable future you can expect posts about events that took place several months in the past. Get used to it.

There have been jokes for years about Christmas being the time when “amateur drinkers” fill up the pubs, but this year I think the topic has gone mainstream with more noise about it than I can remember hearing before.

I guess people in the industry have realised that people who don’t go to pubs also don’t read beer blogs or follow pubs and breweries on Twitter, so those public channels can safely be used to let off steam about them.

The festive season is also a time when a deluge of fairly ordinary beers with novelty pumpclips appears on the market, masquerading as Christmas specials.

These are not what I think of when I imagine a Christmas beer.

What I hope to find on the bar at Christmas is a dark, strong beer of around 7.5%, rich in treacle and dark fruit notes, full-bodied and oily, and well-bittered so that it never becomes cloying. The kind of beer you stumble into the oak-beamed pub on a snowy Christmas Eve and take a deep draught of, while listening to carols sung quietly, but in four-part harmony, beside the roaring fire.

Now it must be said that I have never actually drunk in such a place, so call me a hopeless romantic if you will and tell me that it never was like that. Nonetheless, it seems like a good idea to me.

But I don’t expect to see it return any time soon, and the reason is that I cannot believe the 4.2% novelty beers and the once-a-year drinkers are unconnected.

When the once-a-year drinker appears in the pub, for once the cask ale is on a level playing field with the mass-marketed megabrands. So the ale brewers try to attract his attention with a silly name or amusing pumpclip (anyone who’s ever worked at a beer festival knows that the silly names sell out fastest), hoping that the bonhomie will encourage him to try a pint of something unfamiliar.

However, they don’t want to be responsible for the neophyte supping a few pints of a 7% beer and ending up upside down behind the Christmas tree. The obvious solution is to render the Christmas special, well, not that special.

It is a sad situation, but what can we do about it?

There are some nice Christmas beers about. Williams Bros Nollaig, made with fir trees, became an instant classic when it was released a couple of years ago, and now I look forward to it every year.


  1. Reminds me of what's been done to Wychwood Bah Humbug!, which was originally a 6% seasonal. It's currently selling at 5% in bottle and 4.3% in cask; the bottle is just about OK, but the cask is totally undistinguished.

    South Manchester CAMRA branches run a "Winter Warmer Wander" every year, encouraging pubs to put on winter warmers and/or stouts & porters. I've done it for the last three years & always been disappointed by the number of actual "winter warmers", i.e. old ales, Burtons & barleywines - this year my final tally was something like six out of 25, and three of those were Old Tom (always nice to see, but it'd be good to see the non-Robinsons' pubs trying a bit harder).

  2. Hook Norton "Twelve Days" is the best I found this year