Cheers to beers
Could there be two happier words in the English language than “Christmas” and “beer”? Both signify unadulterated joy, wonder and merriment.
When you put them together, it is not so much a match made in Heaven as an Earth-shattering fusion of all that is holy in the world.
The first sip of a really good Christmas ale conjures up images of a glowing fire warming your house as snowflakes gently blanket the trees outside. Each lingering taste warms the soul with thoughts of friends and family laughing as they gather round the table for a feast.
The Christmas-themed category has exploded in recent years and making sense of it can be difficult as there is no rulebook: a Christmas beer can be anything from a spiced brown ale to an IPA.
The majority are dark, thick behemoths full of the comforting aromas that go hand-in-hand with the season of goodwill: nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, caramel, ginger, vanilla, citrus. But it is a rich realm for experimentation: most strengths, hops and malts are now covered.
“Winter ales are all about flavour and satisfaction – they are generally full, sweet and comforting, suited to fireside contemplation,” says Stuart Howe, head brewer at Cornish brewery Sharp’s, which is set to warm the cockles of beer lovers with a festive beer this year.
Retailers say they are keen to cash in on Christmas ales and limited-edition beers because they believe innovation differentiates the ale category and keeps it exciting.
“Premium ales is a category that brings excitement and interest to the beer category and Christmas is a time when customers are happy to trade up and try something a little different, which is why limited-edition ales work well,” says Nicky Millington, ale and speciality beer buyer at Sainsbury’s.
“We give Christmas ales space on our Christmas gifting aisle and on the beer and cider aisle as we think these are an important addition to the category.”
Dozens of brewers across Britain agree that nothing brightens the long, cold nights better than a Christmas ale, and they are competing to add festive cheer to retailers’ shelves.
Weltons Brewery in Horsham, West Sussex, creates 12 Beers of Christmas each year, including the 4.6% Wenceslegless and the 7.5% Xmas Maximus.
Owner Ray Welton says: “Christmas beers are great because you use all the ingredients that go into a Christmas cake and it makes hairs stand up on the back of your neck when you drink it because it makes you think of Christmas images personal to you.”
The brewery sells a Santa’s Six-Pack in the off-trade featuring six bottled Christmas ales. “We sold loads of them last year and we expect to do so again,” says Welton.
Harveys has an 8.1% Christmas Ale that scooped Best Dark Barley Wine at the 2012 World Beer Awards and head brewer Miles Jenner says: “Christmas ale is steeped in history.
“Its origins in this country are monastic and the monasteries would have brewed beers for special occasions and feasts, so it was part of that Christmas tradition.
“My father first brewed our Christmas Ale in 1972. He described it as liquid Christmas pudding. Over the past 25 years, I have developed it somewhat but it remains true to its origins.”
Shepherd Neame’s 7% abv bottled Christmas Ale has a spicy signature of dates, vanilla, apricots and a hint of Armagnac. Innis & Gunn Winter Treacle Porter and Fuller’s 2012 Vintage Ale have been selling “fantastically well” at Sainsbury’s, according to Millington.
A highlight among the wonderful array of small-production seasonal brews is Bath Ales’ Festivity, brewed at 5% abv, blending rum, coffee and vanilla flavours.
Sulwath Brewers’ 4.5% abv Reinbeer and Woodforde’s Tinsel Toes, a 4.4% abv dark bitter, both make the most of the delightful aromatics of Christmas pudding.
Fans of nutmeg and cinnamon will be tantalised by Inveralmond Brewery’s 4.3% Santa’s Swallie, with its dark copper colour.
Wiltshire-based Box Steam Brewery has a limited-edition Christmas Blonde for fans of sweet citrus flavours and a Christmas Dark for those who appreciate spicy, full-bodied beers.
Even Spanish pilsener Estrella is getting in on the act. PLB is to sell the limited-edition Estrella Navidad over the festive period, featuring Santa on the bottle neck.
All tastes are catered for, and these ales stimulate consumer excitement in the category: the anticipation that comes when you pour a Christmas beer is arguably the closest an adult can get to the glee a child feels on Christmas Eve.
If new consumers are encouraged to experiment with Christmas beers, the excitement they elicit should ensure they continue drinking ale long after the Christmas trees are taken down and the snow has melted.