CHRISTMAS BEERS / BEER DATE 09-12-12

Introduction –
Last week, we reviewed two Christmas beers brewed by Peter Scholey, an Oxfordshire-based brewer.  Peter has made quite a thing of Christmas beers, brewing a whole range of deliciously distinctive beers over the last seven to eight years through the Ridgeway Brewing Company.  Of course, these beers, as we saw with Very Bad Elf, have evolved from his years of experience brewing a plethora of beers for Brakspear, Scottish Courage and an array of customers who have, over the years, contracted Peter to brew beers on their behalf.

This week, we are reviewing the other two of the four beers that Peter has shipped across the Irish see for us to enjoy this Christmas.  Warm Welcome is the first of our two beers.  Described as a ‘Nut Browned Ale’ – for more reasons than one, as we will see, this is a 6% festive brown ale.  Our second beer – Lump of Coal – is a strong stout.  At 8%, Lump of Coal packs a bit of a wallop, but in a deliciously tasty way.

Christmas Beers –

There are three key aspects to a Christmas beer.  The name is obviously important.  Linked directly to the name is the heritage or history of the beer – an aspect that is harder to achieve, as, given that many of the Christmas beers from around the world come from small brewers, it is less likely that the beers have been around for hundreds of years.  Sometimes heritage is achieved because the beer was brewed many years ago as a Christmas beer (Chimay Blue being the classic example), and has remained as such for decades hence.  In other cases, as was the case with Very Bad Elf, the beer evolves from a traditional recipe (in the case of Very Bad Elf, the base recipe dates back to 1792).  In other cases, heritage is achieved by basing the beer on a particular style that would be designed to suit the holiday season (Imperial Russian Stout, or Quadrupel Trappistes would be two styles that would spring immediately to mind).

The third aspect to a Christmas beer is the taste.  And, if you think about it, if this isn’t right, the first and second don’t matter that much.

Most of the time when talking about a classification of beers, we talk about the features that define a beer style.  Pilsners are golden, typically 4 to 5% a.b.v., clean tasting and refreshing.  Stouts are dark, malty, and usually exhibit one or more flavours from the following list – chocolate, roast, coffee, burnt, bitter.  In all cases, when talking about beer styles, the goal is to define ‘what’s in and what’s out’ – in other words, what should one expect when drinking this style of beer.

Christmas beers cannot really be thought of in this way.  ‘Christmas beer’ is not considered a style of beer (in the way that, for example, Oktoberfest beers would be considered a style).  There are no universally agreed parameters for a Christmas beer.  I suppose, in some respects, the best way to think of a Christmas beer is to think of it like a Christmas present – if you always know exactly what was wrapped up for you under the tree on Christmas morning, it would take most of the fun out of it.

So, are there any rules as to what makes a Christmas beer a Christmas beer?  Not really.  There are guidelines that suggest that the brewer is heading in the right direction when designing his Christmas beer.  A little extra alcohol always helps to build up the flavour, complexity and warming character of the beer.  Using unusual ingredients (Cranberries, cinnamon, spices, cloves), or achieving specific festive flavours (dried fruit – as in Christmas pudding, rich, complex character in the beer, chocolate, nuts, sweet flavours) all suggest that the Christmas beer is going to fit in with the Christmas season.  However, one would have to say that the most important aspect of a Christmas beer is that the taste is deliciously palatable, while remaining appropriate to the indulgence of the holiday season.

So, how can one tell if a Christmas beer is going to fit with one’s taste.  While the style of beer that any particular Christmas beer is based on will give distinct clues, my experience is that the best way to work this out is by applying oneself to diligent research, and tasting as many different Christmas beers as might be available each year.

With both of these beers, serving them at room temperature will allow the character of the beers to come through more distinctly.  Peter Scholey (the brewer who designed these beers) is a master at making deliciously complex beers that are filled with a variety of flavours, easy to enjoy.  So, while the beers reviewed below exhibit an array of taste experiences, each expertly balanced against the next, in no way could one say that these beers are overpowering in their flavours.  As always, the more a beer is chilled, the more the flavours will be muted.  So, unless you are fervent in your insistence that beer should only be drunk ice cold, trying these beers at temperatures from 8⁰ to 15⁰ C will give the drinker a chance to experience all that the beers have to offer.

Warm Welcome –

Beer Style -  Nut Browned Ale
Alcohol by Volume -  6.0% a.b.v.
Brewed by -  Peter Scholey, Ridgeway Brewing Company
Country of Origin -  England

The ‘Warm Welcome’ suggested by the name is illustrated graphically on the label of this beer.  Poor Santa, not realising that a hearty log fire is burning in the hearth of the chimney that he is coming down, is pictured with his legs splayed, and fire toasting parts of the body that fire should not toast.  Given the scene, the beer style – ‘Nut Browned Ale’ – takes on multiple dimensions of meaning.

Warm welcome is a ‘Nut Browned Ale’.  In appearance, the beer has a colour on the amber side of brown, with a solid off-white head.  The aroma of this beer is all you would expect from a great Christmas brown ale – toast, slightly nutty, a suggestion of soft toffee and cinnamon in the background.  Hops used are Fuggles and Goldings – two varieties of hops that are particularly popular in English Ales.

Warm Welcome is incredibly easy to drink.  Medium bodied, this beer has a soft velvety mouthfeel, but is not so luscious as to taste overly heavy.  When this beer is brewed, the mash is maintained at a slightly higher temperature.  The mashing process in brewing is the process during which the starch in the grains are converted into sugars.  By using a slightly higher mash temperature, there results a greater proportion of sugars called ‘dextrins’.  Dextrins are sugars that won’t ferment – they won’t convert during fermentation into alcohol and carbon dioxide.  As a result, they survive into the final beer, giving sweetness and body.  Interestingly, the body of the beer is superbly balanced – enough body to give substance to the beer, but not so much that it detracts from how refreshing the beer is.

The taste is delicious.  Biscuity sweetness combines with a nutty bitterness and a softly rich, and subtly complex flavour.  Warm Welcome has a relatively quick finish, though the nutty bitterness and soft brown sugar malt sweetness of the beer linger to remind you of the delicious character of the beer.

Of the three beers in the Christmas Beer Gift Pack that Warm Welcome comes in, this beer is probably the easiest drinking of the three beers (followed by Very Bad Elf, and then Lump of Coal).  That being said, given the above average strength of each of the three beers, they are all deliciously drinkable!!

Lump of Coal –

Beer Style -  Imperial Russian Stout
Alcohol by Volume -  8.0% a.b.v.
Brewed by -  Peter Scholey, Ridgeway Brewing Company
Country of Origin -  England

Everybody knows that good children get wonderful presents from Santa laid out under the tree on Christmas morning.  But, what about those on the ‘Naughty List’?  Tradition has it that the most naughty of those on the naughty list – the ones that have been so naughty that not even Santa can justify giving them a present at Christmas time – wake up on Christmas morning to find a lump of coal at the bottom of their Christmas stocking.  Over 70,000 bottles of this beer – Lump of Coal – are sold in the U.S. each Christmas.  And, given that these bottles are pre-dominantly bought by women as presents for the Christmas stockings of their significant others, divorce lawyers in the States are probably surmising that they will continue to enjoy Happy (and busy) New Years.

Lump of Coal is brewed in the style of a Russian Imperial Stout.  Above average strength (in the case of Lump of Coal – 8.0% a.b.v.) is the hallmark of this style.  This strength contributes to the richness and complexity of character of the beer.

Lump of Coal is a distinctly black beer – rich and night black in colour, with a full, off-white head.  Late hops are not used in brewing this beer, so the aroma (subtle as it is) all comes from the malt character of the beer.  Chocolate and espresso with a dusting of cocoa form the base for the aroma of this Christmas beer.

The mouthfeel of Lump of Coal is hard to separate from the taste.  Initial impression is a taste of rich coffee / chocolate sauce – luscious and deep in character in the mouth.  These flavours give way to a developing liquorice flavour, which combines with a tingling mouthfeel on the palate.  As the flavour of the beer develops in the mouth, the taste of espresso coffee comes through more distinctly.  The hops used in Lump of Coal are Northdown (grown in Worcestershire for this beer, but, interestingly, Northdown is the only variety of hop grown in Ireland).  Northdown gives a nicely rounded bitterness which nicely compliments the rich, dark malt character of Lump of Coal.

Note, Warm Welcome and Lump of Coal are sold in Ireland as part of a ‘Beer Heaven Christmas Beer Gift Pack’ – they are not sold individually.  Santa’s Butt – reviewed last week – is sold as an individual bottle.  If I were to recommend how to drink these beers on Christmas day, I would say that Warm Welcome would work well with a salad or light starter.  Very Bad Elf has a very drinkable character, but with a little more body and sweetness, it would probably be a delightful accompaniment to most Christmas dinners (game, goose or turkey).  Lump of Coal is distinctly an after dinner digestif to drink after one has deposited one-self on the couch in front of the fire.  And, after all, if you  have been given a Lump of Coal as a present on Christmas Day, you probably have a licence to act as a couch potato for Christmas afternoon and evening, while other more worthy people clean up after Christmas dinner.