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Looking beyond the usual suspects can inject a sense of occasion to your festive beer list. Beer guru Jeff Evans picks out some gems to inspire your...

Looking beyond the usual suspects can inject a sense of occasion to your festive beer list. Beer guru Jeff Evans picks out some gems to inspire your customers

Well... it is Christmas, isn't it? That lame excuse for seasonal excess can be trotted out for a variety of reasons, but perhaps indulging in a few too many beers is the most common. That's why your regular beer offerings will almost certainly set the tills ringing as merrily as Santa's sleigh bells. To liven up events, however, you may be thinking of providing something a little more exotic for the festive season.

Regional brewers have traditionally offered pubs special beers at Christmas richer, stronger brews to see off December's chills. Many of these are now available to a wider audience than just the local estate. Arkell's Noel Ale from Wiltshire, Bateman's Rosey Nosey from Lincolnshire and Adnams' Tally Ho from Suffolk are typical of these full-bodied creations. Other 'winter warmers include Robinson's award-winning Old Tom from Stockport, JW Lees Moonraker from Manchester, and Young's original Winter Warmer from London.

Some breweries favour the addition of exotic ingredients to give their ales a festive lift. Shepherd Neame annually presents attractivelyboxed bottles of Christmas Ale. In the past these have been laced with oranges, lemon, herbs or cherry brandy, but today the classy beer is based on just pure Kentish malt and hops. From further afield, San Francisco's Anchor Steam Brewery presents a Christmas beer that may be flavoured with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg or other spices. Bottles can usually be obtained from importer James Clay (01422 377560). Closer to home Ale Mary, a strong ale from the RCH Brewery in Somerset seasoned with the same spices as Anchor's offering, plus ginger, pimento, and coriander was Camra's Champion Bottled Beer only four years ago.

That'll be the Sleigh

Thanks to microbreweries like RCH that the Christmas beer market has been thrown wide open. Almost every little brewery in the country now has something unusual for Christmas, most delighting in the daftest of names. Take Cotleigh Brewery's offering from Somerset Red Nose Reinbeer. Then there's Holly Daze from Fyne Brewery in Argyll, Scotland, or Good King Senseless from Vale Brew-ery in Buckinghamshire. My favourite comes from a tiny Welsh brew pub called Bryncelyn, where the beers are all themed around the landlord's favourite rock and roll star, Buddy Holly. For Christmas he's come up with the brew That'll Be the Sleigh.

If, on the other hand, you'd prefer to provide a real beer experience rather than just an eye-catching name, there are some very serious Christmas beers to consider. From California, via importer Vertical Drinks (0113 267 0565), comes Sierra Nevada's Celebration Ale, brimful of the tangy American character of Cascade, Chinook and Centennial hops. Celebration is quite a beer at 6.8% abv but even this is dwarfed by a stunning beer named Samichlaus, after the Swiss German for Santa Claus. The beer (also available from James Clay) is no longer produced in its native Switzerland, but has been recreated in Austria by the family-owned Eggen-berger Brewery.

Samichlaus is famous for its strength, a lager that climbs the alpine heights of 14% abv. But this is no park bench beer. It is brewed only once each year, on 6 December (St Nicholas's Day), and allowed to mature until the following winter before going on sale. Such a long lagering period produces a beer of immense character and smoothness, with flavours akin to sherry and a tingling alcoholic warmth.

Doing a similar job is Vintage Ale from Fuller's, released in September each year at 8.5% abv and a glorious way to shrug off the winter drafts. Such beers, I recognise, are rather hard to serve in a pub, the strength making them rather a handful for one drinker. Maybe the answer is to promote them as beers to share, which will help neutralise the cost, too.

If you're looking to set up a Christmas beer and food menu they also work well instead of sherry as an aperitif, or port as a digestif. The main course predictably roast turkey is rather an easy dish to match up. You might like to try some of the cranberry-infused beers that are now available, such as the latest variation of Fruli wheat beer from Belgium (via Speciality Brand Development on 01932 853834), or perhaps the more subtle Cranberry Wheat from the Iceni brewery in Norfolk. One style of beer that always works for me with turkey is the Belgian strong brown ale.

Perfect partner for turkey

This type of beer is made with a healthy dose of darker malts and can have notable caramel flavours from the candy sugar it often contains. It sounds an odd combination but the rummy, raisiny, lightly roasted, spicy flavours of Leffe Brune, for instance, make a perfect partner for the slightly gamey, sweetish yet earthy flavour of turkey. I can imagine the same sort of strong dark beer working well with goose, too. Beer, with its gentle carbonation, will cut through the fattiness far better than any wine.

When it comes to Christmas pudding, a sweet stout like Mackeson has the right creamy, sweet-yet-roasted flavours to work well, but may be a touch light for such a heavy dessert. A robust imperial Russian stout such as Harveys Double Extra might hold its own better. There's a chance to build on the plummy character of the pudding with something like Damson Ale from Old Luxters Brewery in Buckinghamshire, but the best option is probably to go for a sumptuous barley wine like Young's Old Nick, Woodforde's Norfolk Nip or the sherry-like beers mentioned above, which you might even splash into the pudding mix.

Or pick out a sweet, spicy, strong Trappist ale, perhaps the glorious Rochefort 10 from the Belgian Ardennes. Alternatively, try Schneider's Aventinus from Germany (like Rochefort from James Clay, yet again). With its fruit and marzipan notes, this outstanding, strong, wheat beer makes exceptionally good sipping with a slice of pudding or a mince pie.

And, after dinner, if anyone feels like another glass... well, it is Christmas, isn't it?

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