On my last trip up North I made a point of checking out the beer selection in Marks and Spencer, having heard interesting things about their new range. I hadn't expected it to be quite so extensive, however, and found myself having to choose carefully for transport purposes. As was I came away with just four, but I thought I'd picked the ones that would best suit my tastes. (And hooray to M&S for having beers that are even suggestive of my tastes).
Dark 'n' strong is one of the ways I like 'em, so the Christmas Ale from Cropton was a definite. It's an appropriate shade of dark red-brown, pouring quite flat and nearly headless. The nose gives off a suspicious plastic whiff, as of a Christmas-themed air-freshener. My first taste impression was good -- sweet and chocolatey, overlaid with lots of cinnamon and clove. The light, thin body was a warning sign, though, especially in a supposed 6.5% ABV warmer. Beneath the seasonal flavours there's a certain citric edge, one which reminded me of mulled wine when the fresh oranges and lemons have just gone in. Mrs Beer Nut described it as "cheap champagne-cider with orange juice", thereby demonstrating she's a veteran of many more crappy Christmas drinks receptions than I. Still, I was enjoying the beer and decided to let it warm up a bit to see if it rounded out any. And it sort of does, just not in a good way. That plasticky spice sensation enters the flavour and it starts being tough going to drink while still being rather thin: a mortal sin. So, despite my sweet tooth and fondness for spiced beer, this one just doesn't cut it.
Something along similar lines happened with the Cheshire Chocolate Porter. The alarm bells started here with the ingredients listing: "Wheat syrup"? Is that just to beef up the gravity to reach 6% ABV? The beer itself pours a remarkably pale amber colour. Once again it's very thin and I found the chocolate flavour to be horribly artificial. And yet again, as it warmed it got worse, even sicklier. Though this time Mrs Beer Nut lapped it up and asked for more. Dunno what that's about.
Back to the wintery brews, and I confess to being rather sceptical at first about Southwold Winter Beer, a seasonal ale brewed to just 4% ABV. It pours a clear shade of copper and balances some seriously heavy caramel sweetness with a solid, funky English Fuggles bitterness. I thought for a second I detected a hint of skunkiness, but after a moment I realised it was more of a mineral sulphur vibe, the sort I love in crisp Adnam's Bitter. Could this be..? Yes, it's brewed by Adnam's. Well that makes sense. I still don't know how far I'd venture to label it a "winter" beer, but as a beer and nothing else, it's lovely. A summer session on this would suit me fine.
And lastly the one that caught my eye before all the others: M&S Scottish Ale. It's brewed with thistles! Thistles! It didn't disappoint either -- another dark ruby body, though with loads of fizz through it. It remains entirely drinkable, however. The flavour starts with a flash of spicy ginger and follows it quickly with a herbal complication which, I'm guessing, is from the dried pointy lads they've thrown it at some point. The finish is dry, maybe leaning slightly towards metallic, but I loved it and could quaff it merrily. More thistle beer please.
Though more of any of this lot would be good, to be honest. I went along to a Dublin branch of M&S and was pleased to see that a number of beers in the range had made it across the Irish Sea: about five lagers and four or so ciders. And the Cheshire Porter. And that's it. It's such a stupid, facile, misreading of the market. Yes, Irish people drink lager and cider (and black beer to a certain extent) more than anything else. But they drink it branded. Giving them a fake Heineken and a fake Bulmer's isn't going to work. And I doubt the people who pay M&S prices for their booze will be tempted. Conversely, British ale is a novelty. It could very easily be one of those things you go to Marks for because you can't get it elsewhere -- think Scotch eggs; think pork pies. It seems incredibly short-sighted, to this amateur market analyst, but there you go. One bit of cross-border shopping our recent excise duty cut won't prevent.