Brown's beer: Seasonal beers

Beer writer Pete Brown delights in the hundreds of seasonal beers on offer at this time of year (plus a secret rendezvous on Berwick Street)

One of the best things about Christmas, the thing that defines it for me, is tradition. 

Of course there are the universal traditions, the ones that bind us together and make Christmas special: we know that an overwhelming majority of the population is sitting down at a similar time to a similar meal as we are, and that gives us a lovely warm, shared feeling that we are part of something bigger.

And then there are the local, specific traditions. 

You do something as a family or group of friends one year, and when you enjoy it you repeat it the next, and by the third year it’s one of your own, unique, special traditions. 

My wife and I have one friend with whom we have to exchange presents every 23 December in a sushi restaurant on Berwick Street. Another friend hosts a Sunday afternoon party after skating at Somerset House. 

And then there’s my Christmas tree tradition where – I can’t believe I’m telling you this – I have to put on my traditional Berghaus fleece and my traditional walking boots and walk about three hundred yards to buy my traditional Nordmann fir from a traditionally dressed cockney geezer. (“Hey, you really know your trees,” he said to me last week. I think this might not be a good thing.)

I then carry it over my traditional shoulder back home, where, traditionally, my wife tells me it’s the best one we’ve ever had.

Another one of my favourite Christmas traditions is drinking Bloody Marys. 

We’ve just bought in our job lot of tomato juice and jumbo bottle of Worcestershire Sauce, and I’ve done my traditional ferretting around in my in-tray to try to find the perfect recipe someone gave me three years ago, and traditionally failed to locate it. (It always turns up randomly some time in the summer, so I know it’s still there somewhere.)

I never drink Bloody Marys at any other time of year. 

“It’s ironic that you rarely see articles championing ten perfect beers for Christmas given there are 150 to 200 limited edition beers on the shelves between November and January, specifically designed for the time of year” 

They form a relatively painless transition into my January detox too, when I kid myself I can’t notice that I’ve left the vodka (and optional splash of sherry) out. 

But much as I love them over Christmas, like the Christmas Morning breakfast of smoked salmon blinis and Bucks Fizz, they never get a look in any time the tree isn’t standing in the corner.

So if you don’t normally drink interesting beers, I figured all this might stand as a way of getting you to try and work some novel ones into your own Christmas, and hopefully make them traditional.

Of course every day of the year is perfect for beer, but at Christmas a decent off-licence becomes a grotto full of treats. 

And yet, few people I know seem aware of it.

All the foodie magazines and weekend newspaper supplements will, no doubt, be giving you their recommendations for Christmas drinks this week. 

And ninety to a hundred per cent of them will be wine. What I find particularly frustrating about this is that your typical ‘twelve great wines for Christmas’ feature as a rule includes wines that are available all year round, and doesn’t go to the trouble of telling you why this wine is better for Christmas than any other. 

It’s rare to see a recommendation for a wine that pairs really well with turkey, or one that contains spicy Christmassy flavour notes, or one that mulls well, or one that’s especially fitting for those long, dark, out-of-time days between Christmas and New Year. 

I’m sure they’re all good wines, but anyone wanting something different and special comes away clueless and empty handed.

So it’s bitterly ironic that you rarely see articles championing ten perfect beers for Christmas given that, right now, there are somewhere between 150 and 200 different limited edition beers on the shelves between November and January, specifically designed for the time of year and for the big day itself.      

At a time when seasonality in food and drink is really capturing the popular imagination, beer is and always has been, specifically seasonal: pale, blonde, summer ales give way to warming red autumnal beers and pumpkin ales, which in turn lead us to winter warmers and Christmas ales.

“At a time when seasonality in food and drink is really capturing the popular imagination, beer is and always has been, specifically seasonal”

Winter warmers tend to be stronger, darker and richer in flavour. You might find concentrated red berry fruit flavours on the palate. 

You might think of them as a bit chewy. These are beers for sitting by a roaring log fire while you watch the snow come down outside, a bit like eggnog, only pleasant to drink.

Christmas ales might push a little further. 

Some will actually be flavoured with spices such as cloves or nutmeg. 

Others can even have hints of marzipan, or more intense dried fruit flavours, and these can meld into one with a spoonful of Christmas pud and brandy butter. Others still might venture more into barley wine territory, with hints of sherry or Madeira and alcohol levels of up to ten per cent.  

And if that sounds high, no one is suggesting you drink it by the pint – and it’s still much lower than sherry or Madeira themselves, or indeed the vast majority of wines.

Beyond purely seasonal beers, there are various permanent beers that come into their own around Christmas: chocolate flavoured porters and stouts, spicy Belgian Tripels that can stand up to turkey and all the trimmings, champagne beers brewed with champagne yeast for a more interesting aperitif, and the aforementioned barley wines which, frankly, make port irrelevant as an accompaniment to Stilton.

So if, like me, you like to be a bit more adventurous and try different drinks at Christmas, get down to somewhere like Utobeer at Borough Market or the realale.com shop in Twickenham, and stock up on some alternatives to the 24-pack of Stella and the M&S chardonnay. 

And if you find some stuff you like, just forget everything I said about the Bloody Mary. 

Beer is not just for Christmas, it’s for life. Maybe make it less of a tradition, and more of a New Year’s resolution…

Cheers.

Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at petebrown.blogspot.com. Hewas recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.

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