I only barely escaped snowy Dublin last week to spend the holiday in frozen Hertfordshire, so my Christmas drinking was mostly along English lines, with just a couple of exceptions. One sister gifted me a bottle of Saint Landelin Spéciale Noël, a seasonal from Gayant, the Douai brewery perhaps better known for Goudale. It's a yulified Belgian-style blonde -- 6.8% ABV and quite sticky with it, piling in the honey on top of gentle pot pourri spices. While warming, it's light enough to stay drinkable and sharing the 75cl bottle is entirely optional, fully subject to one's personal levels of seasonal goodwill.
The other non-English Christmas ale came from another sister (they know me so well): Merry X-Moose by Porthmadog's avant garde Purple Moose brewery. This poured shockingly flat but redeemed itself with lovely big chocolate flavours, finishing on some intriguing lavender high notes. Similar-but-different was Three Tuns Old Scrooge. A bit more condition to this, though not much. It's a dense black beer with lots of treacle spiced up by cinnamon and liquorice: an excellent warmer.
On to less seasonal fare, and Dorothy Goodbody's Imperial Stout: a boxed-up limited run of 6,000 bottles. Advice was that this is best left a few years to mature, but the air travel liquids ban left me with no choice but to pop the cap almost immediately after taking it out from under the Christmas tree. Immature imperial stout can be an unpleasant experience, often spiked with harsh metal-and-cabbage hop tones. None of that here, though. At 7% ABV it's perhaps on the light side of the genre and the flavours are quite gentle: lots of sweet and slightly sticky dark malts, a touch of roasted grain and a balanced grassiness from the hops. It could well be that it gets more interesting with age, but really there's absolutely nothing wrong with this beer right now.
A bottle of McMullen AK XXX fell across my path at one point during my stay. A fairly plain brown bitter, this. Crisp with a touch of toffee, it immediately called to mind Bailey's observations on the substituting of London Pride for altbier. This hits a lot of the same places as alt, finishing with a dry hop bite and being a little over-fizzy for English bitter. Close your eyes and think of Düsseldorf. (For more on the historical brewers' code "AK", including McMullen's use of it, see Zythophile's analysis here.)
Speaking of over-fizzy bitter, I was unable to resist the opportunity to try Whitbread Bitter when I spotted it on keg at a hotel bar near Luton. You have to try the local specialities when you travel, right? It lends further credibility to my grand theory that Irish red ale and English keg bitter are the same ill-starred creation. Whitbread Bitter is monstrously watery, generally sweet, with just a tiny shade more hopping that you might find in the likes of Smithwicks. My other guilty pleasure came on an excursion to the pub near where I was staying. Ignoring my own rule about going for something good rather than ticking off new beers, I couldn't resist a swift pint of Wells & Young's Eagle IPA. Brewed very much to hit the same market segment as Greene King IPA, this is 3.6% ABV and every bit as light, plain, uncomplicated and inoffensive. After one pint it was over to the far superior St Austell Tribute on the next tap.
I got to do very little by way of beer shopping -- just one trip to Sainsbury's, yielding the new IPA from Fuller's: Bengal Lancer. I was really quite careless in how I poured this 5.3% ABV bottle conditioned beer, but it still came out a perfectly limpid shade of dark copper. Despite the gung-ho branding it's quite understated all-in-all: I needed a few nosefuls of the aroma to pick up anything much, eventually identifying jaffa, or possibly mandarin, oranges. The malt drives the taste, leading the hops behind it, creating a not unpleasant effect of marmalade on thick-cut toast. The tail end veers almost tragically towards the metal and puke of Fuller's execrable IPA but just manages to avoid it by finishing quickly. The texture is perhaps the beer's best feature: big and satisfying. It would be nice if there was just a bit more substance to it, but as a straightforward well-constructed English IPA it can't really be faulted and I would buy it again.
And that's where we leave things for 2010. By the time you read this I should be somewhere in central Europe, gathering material for a post or two in 2011. Happy New Year!