Session #58: A Christmas Carol

Detail from John Leech's 1843 illustration for a Christmas Carol.
A detail from one of John Leech's 1843 illustrations for a Christmas Carol.

This month’s session is hosted by Phil Hardy of Twitter fame (@Filrd) who blogs at Beersay.

“There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavor, size, and cheapness were the themes of universal admiration.”

People often misunderstand these lines from A Christmas Carol, and they’ve been misused a million times to accompany images of plump roasted birds.

In fact, at this point in the book, Cratchit’s impoverished family are sitting down to a miserable Christmas meal, the centrepiece of which is a scrawny goose that they’re making the most of. The point is that Cratchit is a good man who tries to find the best in things, including Ebenezer Scrooge, and so has the true Christmas spirit in his heart, regardless of his poverty.

With that in mind, we were thinking about how important it can be to put beer snobbery to one side at Christmas.

If your eight year-old niece buys you a ‘Beers of the World’ selection pack from BHS, chill down those 330ml bottles of Fosters and San Miguel and bloody enjoy them. It’s a thoughtful gift.

If your Uncle Bert offers you a bottle of Greene King IPA in a clear bottle, take it with gratitude and show how much you appreciate it, because that’s someone reaching out, asking you to share a moment of good cheer, in the bleak midwinter.

If your Dad takes you to a pub for a swift one on Christmas Day and all they have is keg John Smith’s, savour every drop: you’re with your Dad in a pub on Christmas Day, you lucky devil.

Just enjoy the Christmas present and maybe next year you’ll get a bigger goose.

Blind tasting lager

Commercial lagers lying in the fridge.

A couple of weeks ago, we posted something about the lager spectrum, suggesting that lagers range from nasty (e.g. San Miguel) to good (Estrella Damm) via neutral (Becks).

We had a nagging doubt, however, that there might be some prejudice in our rankings of these various very similar industrial beers. Do we prefer Estrella to San Miguel because it’s imported rather than license brewed in the UK? Did we think of Becks as neutral because the brand suggests ‘german purity’?

So, inspired by Lars Marius Garshol, and by the results of blind tasting for the Champion Beer of Britain at GBBF, we set out to test ourselves.

Bailey served four beers to Boak, who didn’t know which were in the fridge. They were chosen on the basis that none of them was especially highly regarded or characterful (i.e. no Brooklyn Lager or Jever). The serving order was randomised to prevent any temptation on Bailey’s part to save the perceived best for last, or vice versa.

Boak’s notes were as follows.

Beer 1 (San Miguel, UK brewed)
Tastes like generic lager! Good malt profile; a bitter, slightly metallic edge; no hop aroma or flavour. Not much after-taste at first. A bit unpleasant as it warms up. Not unpleasant when cold. Spanish? Is this Estrella Damm?

Beer 2 (Becks)
Good, pungent, hempy aroma, like Jever, which totally fails to deliver on tasting. Disintegrates. Bland. Like drinking spit. German?

Beer 3 (Estrella Damm)
Crisp and refreshing, but tastes of nothing, apart from a little tartness. Fizzy water with a twist of lemon. Spanish?

Beer 4 (Bitburger)
Similar hoppy aroma to number two but flavour persists a bit longer, definitely accentuated towards the hop. Pretty good. German?

At the end, she named San Miguel her favourite because of the solid maltiness, with Bitburger the runner up because of its hoppiness; Estrella Damm was her least favourite. We were both surprised by this, and a little embarrassed.

This was a fun, eye-opening exercise, and (as if it were needed) once again proves the value of blind tasting.

The lager spectrum

Advert for Stella Artois.

All commercial lagers sit somewhere on a spectrum.

On said spectrum, Becks might act as the zero point, with its more-or-less neutral flavour. We can take it or leave it; it doesn’t actually taste unpleasant; it’s better than nothing. Maybe that’s where Peroni lives, too.

Above that point, there are many good, very good or even excellent commercial lagers. Estrella Damm, for example, might not be remotely like a craft beer, but it’s good. We enjoy drinking it, and even find it a little moreish. It has a certain something.

But, head the other way, beyond the Becks neutral zone, there is the murky world of the nasty lager.

Nasty lagers aren’t just bland or boring: they actually offend the tastebuds. We’d rather drink water than San Miguel, even on a hot day in Spain. What is that flavour? Onions burned in butter? Stella Artois is in the same boat, with a taste that suggests someone has bunged a bit of lighter fluid in to pep it up.

What are your candidates for the nasty end of the spectrum?

Ancient Roman beer (sort of)

Zaragozana brewery's Caesar Augusta wheat beer

El Corte Ingles, the big Spanish department store, has an excellent range of bottled beers and so, last week, we  spent a night on our terrace in Malaga tasting a few and watching the world go by.

As Mahou is one of our least favourite beers, we hadn’t bothered with their Negra, assuming it would be overly sweet and fizzy. However, as Beer Nut had tried it and liked it, we gave it a go. It’s got a promising aroma of coffee and pours with a decent head. It’s also got a good stout-like body which was a pleasant surprise. It tastes pleasant enough, not particularly challenging but a nice surprise from the Madrid brewery.

All the Spanish breweries seem to be pushing premium and reserve brands at the moment and Selecta is San Miguel’s effort. I thought that The only real flavour was alcohol – at 6.2% it didn’t seem worth the units. However, Bailey liked it, detecting toffee and fruity flavours. All in all, a bit like a festbier from a dull regional german brewery.

We had more hopes from two offerings from the Zaragozana brewery, who produce Ambar.  Export is 7%, and the label bangs on about multiple types of malt and ‘double fermentation’. It’s OK, with a malty biscuit flavour and comforting goopy body, but there’s not a lot else going on. It’s like a dull Belgian. Better than the San Miguel effort but again I require a bit more flavour from a 7% beer.  Maybe a bit of a tramps’ brew, all told?

Their Ceasar Augusta* is a different story, though, and a runaway success. It’s a bottle-conditioned wheat beer in the Belgian style and tastes like a maltier, slightly sweeter version of hoegaarden. We’ve been saying for a while that Belgian wit would be a good style for Spanish breweries to experiment with — it goes with the food, can be drunk cold and there’s an obvious link to Spanish flavours in the use of orange peel — and Zaragozana have done really well with this one.

*Zaragoza is a corruption of “Caesar Augusta”, the original Roman name of the settlement. There are references to the Romans all over the bottle including Latin labelling. Classy.

Boak