A winter's ale: Winter beers

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

15 November 2016

Lots of venues miss out on reworking their brew lists for the colder months. In the hope of avoiding this tragedy,
Jane Peyton BS exits, pursued by a beer

Beer is often seen as the unglamorous member of the drinks dynasty – especially by bars and restaurants, many of whom feel it's not worth the effort to offer an imaginative, high-quality list.

But beer is the most convivial of beverages – it tastes much better when consumed in company. And beer lovers themselves are instrumental in deciding where social groups will end up drinking.

That's because beer drinkers spend their money in places that have the type of beer they like, and when it comes to suggesting which venue a group should eat or drink at, cider, wine and spirits drinkers will usually defer to the beer drinker's choice to keep them happy.

This, in other words, is a demographic with both money and influence – so it's well worth keeping them onside.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, customers are more likely to drink differently and will often trade up. With beer, this is where a variety of styles, higher abvs (for the warming factor), serving options and a menu with tasting notes can really make a difference.

Below are five beers that can really sex up your Christmas offering.

Beavertown Smog Rocket
'William Blake's dark satanic mills in beer form…'

Porter was the beer of the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain. It oiled the Industrial Revolution and refreshed the masses, including the river and street porters of London after whom it was named.

Smog Rocket is William Blake's dark satanic mills in beer form – a smoky, burnt coffee, molasses, umami, liquorice drink. A hint of how porter would have tasted in previous centuries, when barley was malted by using wood as fuel, thereby imparting smokiness.

Smoked beers are still common in Germany where they are called rauchbier (rauch means smoked in German), and Smog Rocket is brewed with speciality rauch malts. Try it next to a peaty whisky such as Ardbeg for the full smouldering effect or serve as a cockt-ale in a flute.

I created a drink with this beer called The Big Smoke, which comprises 50% Smog Rocket and 50% sparkling wine, with slices of apple sprinkled with smoked paprika on the side.

Available in: keg and in 330ml cans, 5.4%, RRP £2.50/330ml. Cave Direct, south; 01622 710339, north; 0161 272 7856

Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne
'They are superb beers for lightening the richness of food…'

This is the beer for people who claim not to like beer. Serve blind and those drinkers will be convinced it is cider or wine. Duchesse de Bourgogne is a Belgian style known as Flanders red-brown ale and it is face-puckeringly tangy. Sour beers are arguably the most fashionable style currently being brewed, but this beauty is no Janey-come-lately. She is a noblewoman of ancient lineage that gives a hint of what our ancestors' brews tasted like before cultured yeasts were available.

The characteristic sourness of red-brown Flanders ale is bestowed by wild yeast and micro-organisms such as lactobacillus that populate the local atmosphere and vast oak barrels, known as foeders, in which the beer is aged for up to 18 months.

Flavour-wise they are a complex wave of zingy berry fruit, orange, spice and balsamic vinegar. Thirst-quenching and tannin-rich, they are superb beers for lightening the richness of food. With heavy and rich food in overload during winter, this makes the Duchesse de Bourgogne an ideal dinner guest –especially served in the oh-so-elegant snifter glass.

Available in: a variety of bottles sizes, 25oml, 330 ml and 750 ml. 6.2%, RRP c£2.79/330ml, James Clay, 01422 377560

Harviestoun Ola Dubh 12
'A spectacularly complex expression of the brewers’ art…'

Ola Dubh is where luscious chocolate, vanilla, peat, coffee, sherry and dried fruit flavours combine in a smooth-as-satin, rich and full-bodied dark stout. At 8% abv, it is on the verge of being an imperial Russian stout, with the viscosity of mouthfeel that is characteristic of the style.

The name Ola Dubh means ‘black oil’ in Scots Gaelic, and this beer is an oak-aged version of the brewery's award winning Old Engine Oil beer, which is matured in barrels that contained 12-, 16- or 18-year-old Highland Park whisky. There are also limited-edition 30- and 40-year barrel versions. Each label is numbered with the date of bottling and a cardboard tag of tasting notes hanging around the neck.

Everything about this beer proclaims 'premium', and it is a spectacularly complex expression of the brewers’ and distillers’ art. Served in a tulip glass with a plate of blue cheese to accompany it, this combination is the gustatory epitome of the Danish concept of hygge.

Available in: 330ml bottles. RSP: 12-year-old, £2.95; 16-year-old, £3.95; 18-year-old, £4.95. 8%, Nectar Imports Ltd, 01747 827030

Fuller’s Vintage Ale
'Christmas cake in a glass – a warming sip of liquid luxury…'

Style-wise this is barley wine – but the deluxe option. Vintage Ale is a limited-edition beer brewed once a year. Matured for months in the brewery before being bottled, it is conditioned with a numbered label and the year it’s brewed. The beer is unfiltered and contains live yeast that works its magic by enhancing the already complex mélange of dried fruit, honey, spicy orange and brandy flavours as the beer ages into maturity. Just as some wine improves with age, this beer does too and that is reflected in the price for the older vintages. First produced in 1997, bottles of the inaugural brew are rare indeed and can be purchased from Fuller’s for £515.

Vintage Ale is Christmas cake in a glass – a warming sip of liquid luxury. Drink on its own to savour every mouthful, or match it with crème brûlée, sticky toffee pudding or hard nutty cheese such as Lincolnshire Poacher. Serve this formidable beer in a chalice to proffer the reverence it deserves.

The current year's vintage retails at £6 – the older vintages are more expensive.

8.5%, RRP £6/500ml, Fuller’s, 023 9271 4444

Schneider Weisse Aventinus Eisbock
'It resembles sherry, madeira or port more than it does beer…'

If you are familiar with German weisse beers as being the quaffable and creamy brew that refreshes all the parts, prepare for a surprise. Yes, Aventinus Eisbock is a member of the wheat beer family, but it's going to be more like the stately dowager than the excitable toddler.

Eisbocks are frozen, and by discarding the water in the ice, this elevates the alcohol level. Wheat beers are fermented with a specific strain of yeast that imparts distinctive banana and clove flavours.

This opaque mahogany-hued beer has those in droves. The recipe includes heavily toasted malts, so a the turbo-charged treacle, dried fruit and vinous character is delivered in the mouth-filling mousse.

If ever there was an elixir for the winter season this is it. Spicy and warming, it is a beer to sip and sip again. It resembles sherry, madeira or port more than it does beer. Try mulling it gently and serving in a tankard, just like our forebears would do by heating a poker in the fire and then dunking it into the beer.

12%, RRP £4.50/500ml, James Clay, 01422 377560

Case Study: Bull’s Head, Mobberley, Cheshire
Why puzzling customers is a good thing

This pub epitomises the adage ‘'f you build it they will come'. In the case of the Bull’s Head, that meant focusing on real ale. When owners Mary McLaughlin and Tim Bird (of the ultra-successful Cheshire Cat chain) took over the licence, the Bull’s Head was lucky to sell a quarter-gallon of ale each week.

One refurbishment later, plus the installation of seven real-ale hand pumps, and it now stocks only local micro-brewery beers. It sells 20 gallons of beer a week, with beer accounting for 38% of alcohol sales overall – the biggest proportion of drinks sales.

Customers are loyal and regulars choose from an ever-changing range, including plum porters, stouts and dark milds in winter. Bird puts the success down to 'being brave in stocking only locally brewed ales from small breweries, differentiating from a lot of the other local pubs, and puzzling some of the customers with choice'. This has led to the pub winning several awards and the Cheshire Cat pub group winning the accolade of Best Small Operator 2016 at the Publican Awards.

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