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6 February 2024

The Twelve Beers of Christmas 2023

IT’S the most wonderful time of the year again for us beer lovers, when the effervescent pilsners and lagers of the warmer months now transition into darker, stronger brews – chiefly ales, porters, stouts and barley wines for these colder and longer nights.Christmas beers should also have a sense of occasion about them, so we’ve homed in on the dozen seasonal specials that best reflect the exclusivity of this celebratory period, while offering the tastiest and warmest inner glow your money can buy this yuletide and beyond.With only 12 days to go, get these limited editions in quick, as they can often run dry if not by the 25th then not long into the new year. And with British winters as long than ever, stock up well to see you through! Christmas Ale (Harvey’s, 7.5%)This complex brew, with strong biscuity malt and fruity flavours, is more a traditional dark barley wine recalling the robust ‘stock ales’ drunk more popularly during the 18th and 19th centuries. First brewed in 1972, the ale’s popularity made it difficult for Harvey’s to restrict its obtainability to just the festive season, so they now brew enough to last most of the year! Harvey’s also purvey their own Christmas puddings, made every January with the previous year’s Christmas Ale, ensuring they’re matured just in time for December, so stick one of those in your cart too.              Bad Elf (Ridgeway, 4.5%) “Do not come here looking for subtlety!” warns a label on one of Ridgeway Brewery’s impressive range of seasonal brews, encompassing classy porters and their flagship festive brand ‘Bad Elf’, which comes in a range of mounting ABVs with increasingly ominous names, from ‘Very Bad Elf’ (7.5%) through ‘Seriously Bad’ (9%) to ‘Criminally’ (10.5%). Bad and Very Bad are the most ‘sessionable’ here, while being exemplary ales incorporating English Cascade and Fuggle hops respectively. With Ridgeway celebrating its 20th birthday last year, we’d like to say “Here’s to your good ‘Elf!”, before getting our winter coat.            May Contain Sixpence (Vocation, 12.5%) One of the fastest growing craft breweries in the UK, Vocation has risen from its from humble West Yorkshire origins in 2015 to brewing more than 10 million pints a year, sold to 40 countries. Amongst its repertoire are several stouts that deserve some winter attention, from its ‘Black Forest Gateau’ chocolate and cherry imperial stout to its ‘Sticky Toffee Pudding’ number, but leading the throng is the punch-packing May Contain Sixpence – a hearty Christmas pudding and cherry imperial blended with barrel-aged Kirsch brandy. Treat this 12.5% beauty with the respect it deserves.             Christmas Ale (Fortnum & Mason, 5%)Made with six Kent-grown hops from Westerham Brewery in the Garden of England, this fine ale exhibits a solid malty character with notes of candied peel, liquorice and damson, and pairs perfectly with F&M’s Christmas Scotch Eggs or Cranberry-Topped Pork Pies, or their splendid St James Christmas Puddings. Or if you fancy something a bit fruitier, give Fortnum’s special mulled cider a try: a belly-warming blend of Devon vintage cider with ginger, cinnamon, star anise and nutmeg.            Tally-Ho (Adnams, 7.2%)This limited-edition barley wine has been brewed at Adnams for almost 150 years, making it one of the most venerable on this list. Bottle conditioned and dark mahogany red in colour, the brew’s Christmas cake fruity richness and warmth lends itself perfectly to wintry fireside evenings. Each year’s vintage is unique, going through an extended maturation period, and the product can be kept and matured in its bottle, just like a fine wine. No, really.             Christmas Cracker (Hepworth, 4.8%)A traditional dark winter ale flaunting a robust roasted malt flavour, offset by a touch of sweetness complementing its earthy bitterness. Admiral hops give it that extra bit of zing, and it can even be served slightly mulled for some added warmth on a chilly night. At less than 5% ABV it’s one of the more sessionable of these 12 beers, making it perfect for all-day supping on both the 25th and 26th (although we, of course, advise to drink sensibly this, and every, Christmas…).              Christmas Ale (Shepherd Neame, 5%)A firm festive favourite for more than a decade, available every November and December, this classic full-bodied ale from Britain’s oldest brewer uses Target and Challenger hops for its bitterness and Goldings for its unmistakable aroma, resulting in a brew that delivers a heady, fruity nose, with notes of vanilla, raisins and spices. Served in a classic Dickensian-style bottle label, it’s a beautiful winter warmer in every way. If you fancy something a touch stronger, Shepherd Neame’s thrice-hopped and bottle conditioned 1698 (6.5%) will also be right up your alley.              Nollaig (Williams Brothers, 7%) This special spruce beer – named after the old Irish word for Christmas – is a limited annual release, exhibiting a tawny hue, a resinous rich malt backbone, and aromas of fruit (red berries and citrus) alongside caramel and evergreen forests. Its bold combination of American hops with actual spruce sprigs makes it a properly authentic taste of the yuletide season – you could call it a ‘Christmas tree’ IPA!              Smog Rocket (Beavertown, 5.4%)Smog Rocket was one of the first beers brewed in De Beauvoir town where Beavertown was born. Inspired by the smoky air of London’s Industrial Revolution, this hearty porter from the fashionable brewery uses nine different malts, including a good hit of smoked ‘Rauchmaltz’ from Germany. The resulting flavour, with hints of molasses and caramel, pairs the beer well with red meats or rich desserts like a classic Christmas pud.             Mary Christmas (Ilkley Brewery, 4.7%)With its “peace beer with you” tagline, and a brewing ingredients list embracing cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, vine-fruit and molasses, this superlative amber ale from West Yorkshire is quite simply Christmas in a glass. It’s a fantastic alternative to wine to accompany your turkey dinner, and we also doff our party hat to Ilkley Brewery celebrating its 150th birthday this year. Here’s to another 150!               Christmas Ale (Theakston, 4.7%)  This final seasonal brew is another that so effectively blends its mixture of hops with raisins and cinnamon to deliver an evocative taste of December, which will bring out the best flavours of almost any food it’s paired with, in particular strong cheeses and roast haunches of venison and British beef. We are reliably informed that Theakston are no longer selling this fine ale by the bottle – only via nine-pint mini-keg can it be invited into one’s living room this Christmas. Oh well!   

Category: Food & Drink