Festive ales and ciders to have you singing Hallelujah
Tasting Francois Pouliot’s Neige ice cider should be #1 on your New Year’s Resolution list says Pete Brown
When it comes to Christmas, I get unashamedly sentimental and celebratory. I have no time for the school of thought where we all have to pretend we’re slightly bored of it, above mass-marketed festivity, and that we secretly hate spending time with our families. I cry at It’s A Wonderful Life every year. And I’m a northern bloke.
They say Christmas is for children. No it isn’t. Children aren’t allowed to drink. And for me, the thing that makes Christmas even better than it was when I was waiting for a new Action Man to appear under the tree is that it’s the time I can bring the big guns up out of the drinks cellar.
I spend all my year accumulating bottles and finding new treats, and the best always go down ready for a special occasion. And then the tree goes up, and I think ‘OK, that’s special enough’.
A few years ago my highlight was a bottle of Queen’s Ale from the Museum Brewery in Burton on Trent. It’s a strong barley wine that was brewed to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. In 2009 I was brewing in Burton with the man who created it, Steve Wellington, and we opened a bottle to see how it was doing. (At 10% ABV, it ages like a good wine.)
“Oh my,” said Steve, “It’s never tasted this good before.”
I don’t get to check it as often as Steve, but it was easily one of the most stunning beers I’d ever encountered, all rich fruity notes threaded through with a sherry-like twist.
An hour or so later, I mentioned that the Beer Widow was making our Christmas pudding that weekend. “Well then, dear boy, you must give her a bottle of this,” said Steve, pulling out another bottle of Queen’s Ale from behind his chair (he had a magic chair – he could just reach behind it and pull out any number of bottles of the rarest and finest beers the world has ever known.) “We get a request for a bottle every year – it goes into the Royal Christmas pudding.”
I stared at the bottle on the long train journey back to London from Burton. It was one of the finest beers in the world. Steve had given it to me not to drink, but to pour into the Beer Widow’s Christmas pudding mix. But if I were to drink it, or even put it down in the cellar without mentioning it, she would never know. I had other beers that would work fine in the pudding…
“Here’s a present from Steve,” I said sulkily when I got home, noticing that I was reluctant to let go as the Beer Widow took it. “It’s too good to go in your pudding but that’s what he gave it to us for.”
Happily, the pudding only required half the bottle.
You probably won’t be able to find a bottle of Queen’s Ale (though Fuller’s Vintage Ale, especially an older vintage, is a perfectly good methadone to its unmatchable high, and is sold in Waitrose).
But this year I’ve discovered another drink that scales comparable, if quite different heights.
I’ll be spending most of my Christmas writing the first ever World Guide to Cider. It’s an exciting prospect, because there are various different cider cultures around the world and they haven’t really interacted until now. We think of cider as a sweeter beer substitute, or a noxious West Country peculiarity. In France it’s treated like wine. In Spain it’s revered as an ancient tradition that goes back to the Romans, complete with its unique pouring rituals that are taught from childhood. In the US, they’re just starting to reinvent it like they did craft beer twenty years ago.
And then there’s Canada.
I spent some time in Quebec in the autumn, fitting it in opportunistically, thinking it might make a half-page of the book. I was vaguely aware of a tradition of ‘ice cider’, which sounded interesting enough to learn more about.
It was an unlikely start to what is sure to be a lifelong love affair.
Ice cider is inspired by ice wine, which originated from the same (very cold) region. The list of ingredients consists of two: apples, and the Canadian winter. Apples or pressed juice are frozen. This causes the juice to separate, so water is extracted and the juice concentrates. When this juice is fermented, the high proportion of sugar sends the alcohol level up to around 10-12% ABV.
The finished drink is sweet, like a dessert wine. But apples flavours are a balance of sweetness and acidity, and the acid concentrates too.
When ice cider is made from frozen juice, the intensity and balance of sweetness and acidity makes your palate hallucinate.
It is like tasting starlight.
(I later discovered that this comparison is an unintended steal from Dom Perignon, the monk who allegedly announced his creation of champagne by calling, ‘Come quickly, I am tastings stars.’ But as he stole the method champenoise from Herefordshire cider and perry makers, who had been using it for a hundred years by that point, there’s a just symmetry to that.)
Certain apple varieties will stay on the tree through winter’s freeze, and the concentration happens while the fruit is on the bough. This method means the frost also ‘cooks’ the apple, balancing starlight with an earthy caramel. These are the special reserve ice ciders.
Francois Pouliot, creator of Neige ice cider, has showcased his drinks at wine shows around the world. In France a few years ago, the head wine maker from Chataeu d’Yquem approached him and said, “Swap a case of mine for a case of yours?”
It’s that good.
Ice cider costs about $25 Canadian for a 250ml bottle when you buy at source. It’s on sale in the UK in places like Harrods and Harvey Nichols, by which time it’s crept up to more like £40 a bottle.
It’s worth every penny.
Perfect with foie gras, amazing with cheese, adept as either an aperitif or digestif, Canadian ice cider is the best Christmas drink you’ve never had yet.
Go on, treat yourself. And if your local wine merchant doesn’t stock it, suggest he changes that.
Because if I can get lots of people asking for it, and word spreads, then it’ll be easier for me to stock up when my precious stash runs out.
And you thought I was just being helpful and altruistic.
Pete Brown is the author of the newly published Shakespeare’s Local, an amusing romp through six centuries of history through the George Inn near London Bridge, watering hole to Chaucer, Dickens and the Swan of Avon. It is currently Radio 4’s book of the week. Pete is also celebrating being crowned Beer Writer of the Year for a second time.