Beer and cider aren’t just for summer
We’re in danger of forgetting the true meaning of Christmas. When it’s dark outside, the trees are bare and the earth is barren, many mammals hibernate, keeping their heads down until the worst is over. Humans, on the other hand, fill our houses with light and colour, and laugh at supposed scarcity by loading up on a ridiculous amount of food and drink and throwing the biggest parties of the year. It’s the greatest triumph of the human spirit there is.
Obviously then, our Christmas drinks must be more special than the norm. And so, we get in a couple of cases of wine, and maybe splash out on a decent bottle of bubbly.
But Christmas wine recommendations are invariably the same wines that are available the rest of the year round, and it’s rare you’ll be given any reason why they’re more appropriate for Christmas than for any other time.
Hasn’t this particular ritual become just a bit mundane? Don’t you ever wish there was something a little more special, more intriguing? Something that could actually form a point of conversation over the canapés?
There is. But for many people, the answer still comes as a surprise.
Beer and cider — seen for so long as inferior, commoditised, less sophisticated choices — have undergone a global revolution in style and quality of such intensity and rapidity that wine is beginning to look like it’s running out of ideas.
The Christmas/New Year Party
There’s nothing wrong with lager, so long as it’s a good one. Of the more mainstream brands, I have no quarrel with Peroni Nastro Azzuro (5.1% ABV), which is clean and delicate rather than completely tasteless or actively unpleasant.
Czech classics Budvar (5% ABV) and Pilsner Urquell (4.5% ABV) each offer a more assertive, classic flavour, the latter still a good example of the grassy, spicy notes of the original pilsner, the former a little more bitter. All three of the above lagers are imported to the UK. This is what we currently expect from great lager, but hopefully by next Christmas if not this one, we’ll find it much easier to get our hands on the wonderful British-brewed lagers from smaller but rapidly growing craft brewers such as Camden, Freedom and Cotswold. Greenwich’s Meantime Pilsner (4.7% ABV) is already being picked up by some supermarkets and better off-licences. In Scotland, the ambitious WEST brewery’s St Mungo lager (4.9% ABV), which conform strictly to the German Reinheitsgebot tradition, is widely available. Also worth seeking out is their sprightly, banoffee-flavoured Hefeweizen wheat beer (5.2% ABV).
Cider, has of course, re-established itself as a great alternative to lager. If you think cider should actually taste like it’s made from apples rather than chemicals, you’ll love Sheppy’s single apple varieties such as Dabinett or Kingston Black (both 7.2% ABV). If that sounds strong, just think of cider as English wine, rather than a lager substitute, and drink it accordingly.
For more seasonal party flavours, Magner’s Specials (4.5%ABV), offer pear and ginger, spiced apple and honey, spiced apple and rhubarb ciders that might outrage traditionalists, but are far more pleasant than the alcopops-in-disguise masquerading as more established flavoured ciders.
For purists, you can’t go wrong with a homemade mulled cider. Any uncarbonated, 100% juice, traditional farmhouse cider will do as a base, and Google will instantly give you a wide range of recipes for the addition of spices, fruit juice, sugar and maybe a glug of Somerset’s Burrow Hill Cider Brandy (42% ABV).
There’s been a lot of talk recently about pairing food with beer or cider as an alternative to wine. The traditional Christmas dinner, with its incredible pile-up of different flavours, provides a challenge for any drink, but it’s one where beer and cider shine.
An alternative to cheap bubbles as people arrive is Aspall’s magnificent Cuvée Chevalier Cider (11% ABV). At only £9.99 for a 750ml bottle it more than holds its own against expensive champagne, and reminds us that it was actually English champagne and perry makers who pioneered what would become known as the methode champenoise.
Beer answers the same challenge with DeuS (11.5% ABV), a Belgian ale matured in champagne caves using the traditional method to blur the line between wine and beer. Its effervescence makes it a perfect aperitif; its complex, flowery, biscuity, spicy notes punch it through the present opening to provide the perfect foil for turkey and as many trimmings and sauces as you can throw at it.
Once that’s out of the way, Christmas pudding begs for strong, traditional British ales such as barley wines. Fuller’s Vintage Ale (8.5% ABV) is brewed once a year and ages beautifully. Buy one to share with Christmas pudding this year, and a few for the cellar.
Brewer Wells & Young’s has, disgracefully, axed the world’s most perfect accompaniment to Christmas pudding — Young’s Christmas Pudding Ale (5.5%ABV), a concoction of pudding flavours in a glass that Willy Wonka would have marvelled at. But Young’s Double Chocolate Stout (5.2% ABV) — brewed with dark malt known as chocolate malt, with real chocolate added — remains as the perfect end to any feast.
Falling asleep in front of the telly
For Christmas night onwards through those dark, timeless days leading up to New Year, there are literally hundreds of rich, dark, contemplative winter ales scattered across all decent supermarkets. Bateman’s Rosy Nosey (4.9% ABV) and Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale (7% ABV) are perennial favourites, full of fruity notes with the occasional sherry hint.
Badger’s Poacher’s Choice (5.7% ABV) is flavoured with liquorice and damson for a heady blend of spicy sweetness. Other permanently available beers, such as the classic Worthington White Shield (5.6% ABV) and possibly the perfect fireside beer, Adnam’s Broadside (6.3% ABV), also really come into their own when the nights are longest, with maybe a bit of cheese on the side.
Finally, if you’re looking for something to finish off before bed, a beverage that can up the game but still won’t leave you destroyed the next morning, try the magnificent Ola Dubh (8% ABV) from Scottish brewer Harviestoun. Matured in Highland Park whisky casks, this regal potion suggestive of vanilla, whisky, chocolate, wood fires and caramel, really will make you wish it could be Christmas every day.
Pete Brown makes people thirst for a living. Most beers and ciders listed here are available in supermarkets, particularly Waitrose. However, ranges change continually. Mail order websites such as www.beersofeurope.co.uk stock pretty much everything here and prove cost-effective when ordering in bulk.