The Session: Christmas beer

session-logo-r-sm.jpgThis month’s session is hosted by the Barley Vine, and bloggers were asked in this post here to pick a seasonal beer or two.

We thought we’d bend the rules slightly and pontificate on Christmas / “winter” beers, and possibly get round to drinking one later. It’s not through lack of choice – London’s pubs are full of various seasonal offerings, and at the Pig’s Ear beer festival in Hackney I counted around 50 beers described as “Christmas Ales” from Britain and a dozen or so foreign offerings. It’s just that it’s an interesting topic in its own right: what, if anything, makes a Christmas beer?

In Britain, Christmas ales tend to be dark (but not as dark as porters) and spicy. This no doubt is related to our Christmas foods, which tend to be dark and spicy. The spices used tend to be cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg — all ingredients that shout “Christmas” at you. Unfortunately, these spices are quite difficult to get right. Too much and you end up with quite astringent flavours and “the wrong kind” of bitterness; too little and you may as well have not bothered — it’s just a gimmick to make the beer sound attractive. It’s quite rare to get a beer where you can taste the spice BUT without it being overpowering — like Dorset’s Advent-ageous which we tried at the Pig’s Ear festival.

Interestingly, Christmas ales in Britain are often not that strong. While some brewers see it as an excuse to whack up the malt and therefore the strength, most seem to stick to around the 5% mark. The evidence for this comes from the programme of the Pig’s Ear Beer festival, where there are plenty on offer at under 5%. Probably a good job given the amount we drink at Christmas in this country…

Belgian brewers are not ones for being constrained by styles or rules, and this applies to Christmas beers as well. Some are light, some are dark, but from the couple we’ve had, they don’t strike us as being more spicy than usual. They do tend to be stronger than usual though — e.g. Dolle Brouwers “Stille Nacht” at 12% (a nice drop, from what we remember, but that was a while back).

How about Christmas wheat beers? We’re not experts on the German brewing scene, but it was interesting to discover last time we were there that several breweries produce winter wheatbeers. We had an excellent beer called “Schneewaltzer” from the Herrnbrau brewery in Ingolstadt, described as a “Winterweisse”. It tasted incredibly Christmassy, even though we were drinking it in April… but then it’s not that surprising, given that one of the dominant flavours of many German wheatbeers is cloves, which we Brits always associate with Christmas.

belenos.jpgBut back to the Session topic! We tried a Christmas beer from Spain: Belenos de Navidá. I spotted it in El Corte Ingles, the legendary department store where you can get everything, including decent beer. It’s 9%, made in the Asturias region by “Exclusivas Tormas”, who seem to mostly be an importer / distributor. It says “we made this beer to celebrate Christmas 2006” in strange Castillian (archaic? regional? I wouldn’t dare say). I wonder whether that means they made it around Christmas 2006, or to sell over Christmas 2006? It’s best before November 2008, at any rate.

There’s no other information on the label. Is it bottle-conditioned, top or bottom fermented? The only source of further information on the internet is a web-forum about Spanish beer, from which I’ve been able to ascertain that:

  1. you can get it on tap in Oviedo (Asturias) but not many other places, though I don’t know if that would be the same as this “Christmas” beer;
  2. there’s rumours that it’s made in Belgium and only bottled in the Asturias, although these rumours are contested; and
  3. it reminds subscribers of this forum of a Belgium triple.

It pours a nice red colour and definitely has yeast suspended in it. It does indeed taste Belgium abbey / trappist through and through — good body, toffee-apple flavour, mild zestiness and spiciness. Extremely drinkable for its 9% and quite possibly the best beer in Spain.

Not that that’s saying much.

In conclusion, possibly the only thing that links Christmas beers is that they are an opportunity for brewers across the world to try something different, to experiment with their recipes and make something special.

Pagoa post script – Zunbeltz (and style nazis)

In my post two days ago, I reviewed two Pagoa beers – now the third, “Zunbeltz”, which describes itself as a stout.

Again, this seems to get real bad reviews on Ratebeer, and I can’t really see why.  It’s got bags of flavour, toasted malt, coffee and chocolate notes and a lovely long finish. This is easily one of the tastiest beers in Spain and would stand up very well against a British mild like Oscar Wilde.

And perhaps this style “confusion” explains the bad reviews - it hasn’t really got the body to be a stout, which is what the reviews seem to focus on.

While I can’t get as worked up as some bloggers about overclassification of beer – I think it’s quite useful for homebrewing if you’re trying to copy a particular favourite – I think in this case, it has resulted in a good beer getting some very bad reviews because it’s not “true to type”.

Or alternatively I’ve had a taste lobotomy since being out here…

Anyway, it is definitely worth trying, and I won’t even qualify that with “if you’re in Spain”. 

Boak