For once, I knew I'd have it easy getting hold of suitably Sessionable beers. The theme is winter warmers and comes a couple of days after I paid a visit to the Pig's Ear festival in Hackney, whose stunning list included quite a few Christmas specials. I also had one held over from my trip to Belfast a fortnight ago: Sanity Claus by Whitewater. I had been expecting something dark, warming and, y'know, Christmassy, but was surprised and disappointed to find it pale, dry, watery, yet rather harsh as well. It turns out that this pale Christmas ale is a style made by several UK brewers. In Hackney I had a taste of Rudolph's Balls. It's quite bland, yet also hard to drink because of its uncompromising bitterness. There's a huge hole in the flavour where some spice would fit perfectly. After these two I was relieved to find a pale Christmas ale that actually tastes good: Santa's Swallie by Inveralmond. Here, there's a tasty maltiness sitting alongside the dryness which, to me, resembles the lighter kind of lambic. I enjoyed it, but none of these pale beers are what I'd be looking for at Christmas time.
Thankfully, there were a few what I'd regard as "proper" Christmas ales on cask at Pig's Ear. Probably the best of the lot was Nobby's Santa's Secret. This dark ruby beer has pronounced sweet and spicy cake notes overlaying a rich and satisfying warmth and finishing with a lingering chocolate flavour. Textbook stuff. The St. Jude's brewery provided St. Gabriel's Christmas Ale, a mild and dark beer with pronounced coffee flavours and a gentle kick of nutmeg. Beautifully crafted and effortless to drink (despite a hefty 6.5% ABV) but not exactly warming per se. Ramping up the alcohol to 9.8%, there's Ballard's Blizzard. This is an incredibly heavy beer which goes down very easy but sits in the stomach for ages. There's a lovely strawberry flavour in amongst the malty alcoholic notes.
It's hardly surprising that dark winter beers are popular in Norway, and two examples were kindly donated to me by fellow blogger Knut who accompanied me to Hackney on Tuesday. From macrobrewer Ringnes there's Juleøl: a red ale with a very sticky, sugary aroma but which is surprisingly unsweet. It has the warming alcohol flavours one would expect but is ultimately a little tasteless. A much better proposal is Nissemor from Haandbryggriet. This is similarly red brown but is brimming with flavour: raisins, chocolate and a gorgeous spiciness. Like the St. Gabriel's it's strong (6.5% again) but not exactly warming and rather heavily carbonated. However, the abundance of great flavour keeps the palate too busy to notice or complain.
There's much more to report on from London and the Pig's Ear (and some slightly better photos), but it'll have to wait a few days as I'm off to Amsterdam tomorrow for a weekend of rest and, possibly, a couple of beers. In the meantime you can read about it from the perspectives of Stonch, Maeib and Boak&Bailey (update: now with added Knut Albert).