beer reviews

Strong, fruity, wrong and funky

Two beers: Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale and Bateman's Vintage Ale.

Last night, we got round to drinking a couple of strong beers we were sent by Shepherd Neame and Aldi respectively in the run up to Christmas.

In one sense, Shepherd Neame’s Christmas Ale (7%) is a cause for rejoicing: it comes in a proper brown bottle, rather than the clear glass they’ve been using to disastrous effect for the last decade or so. This is a huge turnaround and a ‘positive behaviour’ (thanks, Dr Tanya Byron) we definitely want to encourage.

It’s a shame, then, that the beer itself seemed to be… wrong. There was a whiff of elastic bands when we popped the cap, and it tasted waxy, rubbery and, finally, of slightly singed cardboard. An intriguing minty hop flavour we detected early on passed too quickly and, unfortunately, we only got half way through before giving up.

We’re not huge fans of SN’s beers in general (though we have a soft spot for their porter) but this particular bottle disagreed with us on a level beyond ‘house style’ — a technical issue, perhaps? We won’t write off the beer altogether, though we’d want to wait a few months before trying another from a different batch.

Bateman’s Vintage Ale (7.5%) comes in a cardboard box with a sticker sealing the lid — these apparently, thanks to Fuller’s, are the universal indicators of ‘vintagey-ness’.

On pouring, we were immediately reminded of Black Sheep Progress, another strong ‘special’ from a British regional brewer that we got to try at a tasting do run by Darren ‘Beer Today’ Norbury. Where Progress caused one of our fellow tasters to mention “armpits” in his notes, this beer’s aroma gave us (bear with us) old socks and white cheese rind. The taste was similarly odd, with some savoury vegetal character coming up against a tot of salty, coppery sherry-vinegar.

We didn’t love it, and, no, that doesn’t sound appetising, we admit, but the beer’s not wrong, just funky, in the same way Harvey’s or Adnam’s beers can be. If we drank enough Bateman’s, we could probably get to like it, and it certainly kept us interested, if not delighted, to the end.

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Why so few bottled dark beers?

It’s always interesting to see the old adverts that pubs sometimes use to decorate their walls. A poster for Bateman’s Salem Porter from the early 90s caught our eye this week.

We assumed this beer had been discontinued because we’ve never seen it for sale anywhere, unlike their ubiquitous XXXB and Rosey Nosey Christmas beer. But, no, they still make this multiple award winning cask only beer.

Keen as we are to find it on cask one day, it would also be nice if their bottled range (which we can get very easily in corner shops in our bit of London) included this apparently brilliant beer. Perhaps they could drop one of the three very similar golden ales to make room?

Maybe they feel there’s no market? If so, that’s a shame, because we really believe dark beers (milds, porters, stouts, lagers, whatever) are going to be the next big thing. After all, what’s a cooler looking pint than one that’s pitch black?