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Neil Sowerby's Christmas Beers

From Good King Senseless to a drop of O Ho Ho!

Written by . Published on December 20th 2011.

Neil Sowerby's Christmas Beers

Neil Sowerby gets exceedingly merry with his pick of festive beers

SANTA really is the typical CAMRA member. Ruddy of cheek, bushy of beard, with a girth inflated by years of heroic quaffathons (would I get Scrabble points for that woozy coinage?) You get my meaning, though. He’s not one for posing on a bar stool with a Peach Bellini or an over-priced Zombie. So we’ll toast Herr Claus with a few Christmas ales – and stouts, naturally.

SamichlausSamichlausLet’s start though with a lager, once the strongest in the world, touching 15 per cent alcohol by volume on occasions. Samichlaus means Santa Claus in the Swiss-German dialect of Zurich, where it as originally made. The style was revived a decade ago at Schloss Eggenberg in Austria. December 6 is Saint Nicholas' Eve, and that is when each new batch of the potent brew is made and laid down to mature in the cold cellars. It takes almost a year of slow secondary fermentation inn cellars under the Alps to develop the full strength of Samichlaus. It’s the Large Hadron Collider of the beer world. The Market Restaurant in Manchester’s Northern Quarter has a bottle or two about at a whopping £9.75.

Tokyo - Samurai Strength Beer!Tokyo - Samurai Strength Beer!

Or rather was until, young brewing turks started upping the ABVs. Those media-savvy upstarts, BrewDog, are currently offering us Black Tokyo Horizon, their self-styled “Intergalactic Oak-aged Stout” in a special Christmas edition (£9.99 a bottle if you can find it – try Port Street Beer House perhaps or any specialist craft beer outlet) This imperial stout, all dark fruits and caramel, is brewed with copious amounts of speciality malts, jasmine and cranberries. After fermentation the BrewDoggers then dry-hop it with a huge stash of hops before ageing it on French toasted oak chips. Oh yes, and it’s 18.2 per cent.

Christmas Beer Range In The Market RestaurantChristmas Beer Range In The Market Restaurant

OK, Tokyo is not very Christmassy. But Brewdog’s collaborators in this special edition are Nogne-Ø and Mikkeler, two Scandinavian breweries specialising in knock ’em down Christmas brews. Mikkeller's Santa's Little Helper (10.9 per cent) is a brooding, spicy Belgian-style beer, aged at the Danish brewery in rum casks. Norway's Nogne-Ø annually produce God Jul, a dark and sweet ale, a mer stripling at 8.5 per cent.

Good King Senseless sounds like another festive brute, but this seasonal beer from Bucks brewery Vale weighs in at a trifling 5.2 per cent. Available on draught at selected Wetherspoons, it’s a mellow Christmas pudding of an ale more notable for continuing the real ale tradition of silly names.

Meery Christmas From LythamMeery Christmas From LythamWhich doesn’t mean I in any way condone the likes of bottled conditioned specialist Ridgeway of Oxfordshire, whose festive specials can seriously damage your Elf. I give you:  Bad Elf, Very Bad Elf , Seriously Bad Elf, Criminally Bad Elf and Insanely Bad Elf (that last one 11.2 ABV). They also do Santa’s Butt, Lump of Coal and Reindeer’s Revolt. I am intrigued by Santa’s Dark Side, from Naylor’s of Keighley) a Billy Bob Thornton of a bitter), but Meery Christmas from Lytham Brewery just sounds like Dreary Christmas.

Of course, Christmas always gives the compulsive beer namers full rein(deer). Take Springhead brewery of Notts. Throughout the year they brew Rupert’s Ruin, a historical nod to the Cavalier Prince of that ilk. Come Yule, it is transformed into Rudolph’s Ruin (of that elk), a richly malty brew, as it happens.

In a different league, though, is superficially the silliest name of all – O Ho Ho from Otley Brewery. It’s a five percent  full bodied bitter, slightly ruby in colour and infused with blueberries. I drank it recently and found it quite gorgeous.

Bath Ales’ seasonal beer, Festivity, is a similar strength and is available in cask and bottle. Its mix of rum, coffee and vanilla flavours is not quite me, but might be you. Waitrose stock it.

St Nich's TippleSt Nich's TippleSt Nichs Tipple is easy to mispronounce. Itchen Valley brew it for the Nicholson group of pubs – which includes the Bank on Mosley Street, Manchester and the Scarborough, Bishopsgate, Leeds – while Wychwood have come up with fruity, spicy Bah Humbug, on special offer in Aldi at £1.39 a bottle.

Our local humbug contribution comes from Frederic Robinsons, who call their mahogany coloured festive ale Mr Scrooge Humbug Bitter, which has a lovely citrussy nose and long fruity aftertaste.

This being 2011 (probably 2012 by the time you have worked your way through this epic) we can’t neglect those uber-trendy craft beers from across the Pond. They are certainly not neglecting Christmas. Indeed in manchester you are more likely to come across the American Christmas beers (at a premium price) than their Brit counterparts.

Sierra Nevada CelebrationSierra Nevada Celebration

Colorado’s Odell is my current fave US brewer. The 6.1 per cent Isolation is an odd title for a festive tipple, but its huge bready smell and fruit and nutty finish made me very jolly. Sierra Nevada’s slightly stronger Celebration Ale deserves celebrating, too. Deviating from the rich fruitcake norm, it’s a hugely hopped, more-ish IPA. From Oregon Rogue Ales’ Santa’s Private Reserve is a double-hopped ale, reddish in colour, with a roasty, malty flavor and a hoppy, spruce finish.

Cheers From AnchorCheers From Anchor

You are never quite sure what style legendary San Francisco brewers Anchor will adopt for their Christmas Ale, a leader in this specialist field since 1975. But dark and deep with oodles of spice is a constant. Each year there’s a different tree on the label, symbolising renewal (more a glass half full than a glass half empty). For 2011 it’s a bristlecone pine, one of the  the oldest living plants on the planet.

I haven’t yet tasted Goose Island Christmas Ale, currently in stock at Port Street (6.2 per cent, £5.50 for a 355ml bottle), but it boasts of being a complex brown ale that also shifts recipes from year to year. Must be that pioneer spirit.

St BernardusSt Bernardus

Northern Quarter veteran The Market Restaurant has always prided itself on its world beer list and its Christmas Ales are primarily Belgian. Sadly their last St Bernardus Christmas Ale has been sunk, but you may well find it and others in Altrincham’s Belgian bars or specialist beer shops (the latest of which is the highly recommended Beer Shop at 13 Kingsleigh Road, Heaton Moor).

What you missed: a 10 per cent Abbey ale with a thick creamy head and a rich, velvety taste. Complex and pruney for the connoisseur, until the alcohol seizes your senses. The Market also served me a much mellower (8.8 per cent, £6.50 a 335cl bottle) Gordon’s Christmas Ale, a variation on their Scotch Ale, designed for the palates of squaddies over there during the Great War. Beautifully balanced for its strength, it would make me call a Christmas truce in the trenches.

De Dolle Stille NachtDe Dolle Stille NachtMy top Belgian Christmas beer, though, along with De Dolle Stille Nacht (perhaps I just like the name) is Gouden Carolus Noel. It’s almost black, with only a beady head and scarce aftertaste. The whiff of molasses, nutmeg, banana on the nose would convince you it is going to taste sweet but it is hoppy and winey at the same time. A bittersweet treat to leave out for Pere Noel.

For myself I have stockpiled a bottle of Marble Brewery’s Decadence, a luscious 8.7 per cetn ABV imperial stout that costs £18 for a 750ml bottle at Port Street Beer House and considerably less at the Marble bars, and a  Marks and Spencer’s Greenwich Hospital Porter. Made to a 1750 recipe by Greenwich’s Meantime Brewery, it is dark and rich with a  smoky edge from four months’ aging in Islay whisky casks (£9.99 a 750ml bottle; 6 per cent ABV).

Marble DecadenceMarble Decadence

A spot of Isolation, then Decadence followed by a visit to the Hospital Porter. Live dangerously this Christmas!

NB: The appropriately decadent opening picture was an ad for US giants Michelob, whose Winter Bourbon Cask Ale is one of their tastier efforts.

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Jon JonesDecember 21st 2011.

Try Dunscar bridge beer in bolton! they have a microbreweery in the brewhouse pub on blackburn road & a brewery on dunscar bridge business park

Charlie ButterworthDecember 21st 2011.

Is that Neil Sowerby sat on Santa's knee?

Neil SowerbyDecember 21st 2011.

See my 10 things to Eat in A Basque feature on Planet

Adam Bruderer shared this on Facebook on December 22nd 2011.
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