I did have quite a merry Christmas, thanks for your wishes, one and all. It began the day before Christmas Eve with a supermarket sweep in my parents' local Sainsbury's. Newry had mostly let me down on the Sainsbury's prize-winners, but I fared much better in Armagh.
I bagged a bottle of Barnstormer, for instance. It's quite a simple dark bitter; one which claims full-bodiedness but I found to be a smidge on the thin side. What separates it from the herd is the oodles of chocolate character, climbing forcefully out of the glass and adding a richness to the flavour which already has plenty of caramel malt, a strong English hops bitterness and more than a hint of warming roastiness. These attributes are balanced rather well and, sitting on that light body, make for a beer which is highly enjoyable to sink. If you're minded to buy it, get more than one bottle.
The other competition winner couldn't be more different. I'm still not used to full-flavoured beers which are clear and bright yellow, so I was surprised at what poured forth from the bottle of Doctor Okell's IPA. It gives up its secrets early, however, with a strong whiff of bitter grapefruity hops hitting the nose right away. Naturally, hops dominate the flavour, perfectly tempered with just enough light caramel to provide the balance and body it needs. I'd nearly say it was the perfect northern English IPA if it were actually from northern England, rather than a funny constitutional oddity just to the left of it. A deserving fellow prize-winner, and a cut above the Barnstormer in my opinion.
So much for other people's judgment. Time to make some of my own.
Quite often I'll buy a beer with a strong advance suspicion it'll be terrible. I'm frequently wrong, however, which adds an extra thrill to the pouring. This time round, Marston's Single Malt was the one I had second, third and fourth thoughts about before eventually walking off with it. I don't think I've ever liked a Marston's beer, and clear glass is never a smart move. Then there's the whisky associations, with the possibility of the sweet, cloying woody flavours that tend to accompany them.
It turns out, however, that the name is derived simply from the fact that only Golden Promise -- allegedly the preferred malt of Scottish distillers -- is used. Well, and some hops too, since my bottle had received considerable attention from the Skunking Fairy. Beyond that mild unpleasantness there is really not much to this at all. Tasting blindly I reckon I would be hard pressed to tell it from green-bottled euro-fizz. Light, bland and dull. Avoid.
Purity Brewing's Ubu amber ale was a much better proposition. I've really taken to US amber ales this past few months and was interested to see an English take on it. Obviously it's nowhere near as citrically hoppy as its transatlantic cousins, instead what you get is a fairly typical English pale ale: a good solid caramel malt base peppered with a dry tangy bitterness. It's unchallenging but still pretty tasty.
There's a similar red-gold colour to Theakston's Grouse Beater, but a very distinctive super-fruity nose, full of violets and raspberries. The sweet flavour is packed with summer fruit, ending in a rather odd dry chalkiness which I wasn't sure how to take. I was reminded a little of Poacher's Choice, but it's lighter and much less of a fruity smack in the gob. At the same time, I think one Grouse Beater is the place to stop.
Staying with the game, I was pleased to get hold of some Pickled Partridge, the seasonal from the Badger range (as mentioned favourably here, and less so here). It's another pale ale on the attractive red-gold end of the spectrum. There's not much by way of aroma, but a strong hoppy foretaste arrives early and lingers long enough to let the toffee malt base catch up and mix with it. Even at a mere 4.5% ABV it definitely works as a winter warmer, though I'd mark it down for over-carbonation and a slightly unpleasant soapy afterburn right at the end. Good, but could be better.
One of the stranger finds was sitting on a shelf by itself in the supermarket, some distance from the other beers. I've no idea why Arthur Pendragon SA wasn't allowed join in the reindeer games, but I found it quite a quirkily tasty number. It looks like bottle conditioning went all wrong, with no gas and a murky dark brown body. The texture isn't great either, and definitely on the thin side. However the flavour is magnificent, packed full of lip-smacking sweet woody smokiness. The beer, by Hampshire Brewery, is a bit of a one-trick-pony, but it's a trick I enjoy.
My one new stout of the holiday was in Meantime's half-litre bottle range: their London Stout. The label blurb has an interesting jab about stout being more of a London thing than an Irish thing, almost as if this first-rate Greenwich microbrewery feels some way inferior to the soulless industrial macrostout facility Diageo are running in Dublin 8. This sense continues in the way the beer is unfortunately rather like Guinness, being dry, a bit metallic and generally quite understated in the flavour department. Still, London Stout is decent, unfussy drinking, and certainly a far cry better than Uncle Arthur's bottled offerings.
No Wychwood beers this year, just one from the brewery's organic Duchy Original range: the Special Ale. It's a dark amber strong ale featuring big, almost-sickly sweet malt tempered with a bitter kick. It's a cut above most of the organic English beers I've had and I can't help wondering if it's because the hops are English rather than air-freighted from the usual organic hops suppliers in New Zealand. Or it could be that the flavour comes out of its shell more once the ABV is pumped up beyond 6%. Either way, I liked this.
I finished my stash on Boxing Day with another strong ale, and one of the best, in my opinion. Bateman's Victory is just about perfect as an example of the style. Though amber rather than ruby, it has the classic weighty body, loaded with chewy toffee flavours, that is just immensely satisfying to drink. The stickiness warms all the way down. The hopping has been done firmly and gently, imparting a spicy bitterness that adds to the malty warmth. It was a dry and chilly Christmas up where I was, and this beer in particular provided the perfect antidote.
And those were my ten beers of Christmas. Should've asked Santa for liposuction...