Although I don’t know much about real ale it is, in fact, my drink of choice in a pub environment. Perhaps this just says something about the alternatives, but a decent pint of bitter is a joyous thing (and a million miles from flat, flavourless keg offerings such as John Smiths). However, I’ve repeatedly had the experience of sampling some delectable local ale somewhere in the provinces, then later spotting it in a London pub—only to discover that it tasted very different. I assume it’s a combination of bar staff who don’t know how to care for cask ale plus low sales meaning the beer sits around until it goes off. (I used to drink with colleagues at The Grapes in Shepherd Market: among its many charms it often had an impressively broad range of ales, but these were frequently way past their best, sometimes tending towards cider vinegar. On the other hand there was a pub* near where I lived that usually had a guest ale—and whatever it was, it was always excellent, almost suggesting that the skills of the publican make more difference than how the beer is made in the first place!
So is the solution bottle-conditioned ale? CAMRA approve, describing this as “the next best thing” to a pint of draught ale in the pub. Unpasteurised beer is bottled while the yeast is still alive, which not only allows subtle flavours to develop but apparently also has a natural preservative effect. It leaves a sediment of dead yeast so you have to pour carefully. There are some 500 bottled ales made in the UK, often hand-crafted in tiny batches by gnarled madmen. I almost never drink beer at home, so I braced myself for a voyage of discovery. Starting on Christmas day, I drank a ale a day till Twelfth Night…
Oakleaf Brewing Company, 4.5% ABV)
A sweet, floral nose and a light and fresh palate, with a prominent hoppy bitterness. But there are fruit and nut elements too which are brought out by well matched food. The handy crib sheet that comes with the case gives confident suggested food pairings and advises cheese with this one. So I rustle up a cheese platter—and they’re right. The beer goes particularly well with vignotte, the cheese’s lemony freshness fencing with the tongue-tickling bitterness of the hops.
St Austell Brewery, 5% ABV)
Created to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar (the messenger carrying the news of victory stopped first at the Blue Anchor Inn, a St Austell Brewery pub, so there’s nothing tenuous about the connection whatsoever), this ale doesn’t avow a Christmas connection but it has a powerful aroma of boozy fruitcake. It’s actually more noticeable from the neck of the bottle than the glass (thus opening up the whole question of the correct glass from which to drink different drinks). Later I get hits of marzipan too. It’s richer and meatier than yesterday’s ale, with a toasty maltiness. It’s darker and sweeter too—though a long way from the treacly opacity of some “winter” ales—but with plenty of bitter hop action and tart acidity too.
Made by the former head brewer of the defunct Brakspear. Oddly the brew’s label proclaims that it is brewed in the UK for the US market. Apart from the Surgeon General’s warning we get a warning that huge amounts of hops go into the beer—is this because the US market is not used to the spiky hoppiness of bitter? Bad Elf is a light, pale amber colour with a fresh flavour and not much of a nose. The head is loose and open and dissipates in a couple of minutes. It is hoppy, but no more so than Reindeer’s Delight, it seems to me. The chief characteristic is a tangy, orangey citrus note; which is quite Christmasy in its way. Refreshing and quite quaffable as ales go, though I guess that if you’re used to lager this will have a strikingly full mouthfeel.
Otley Brewing Company, 4% ABV)
Nose is immediately toasty but somehow juicy at the same time. Palate is sweetish, hints of heather and honey. The hops are there at the back but this is a soft, approachable ale. No head; almost still, in fact. Subtle. Perhaps the lower ABV and less hoppiness allow you to think about the other flavours, the subtle fruit and savoury notes that make it feel less of a stylistic showcase and more like food, a staple, like a part of an ancient landscape. It makes me think of rain-soaked leafy hillsides, for some reason. Very easy to drink.
Hop Back Brewery, 6% ABV)
Apparently made with spices—cinnamon, nutmeg and coriander—so you expect it to smell like mulled wine but in fact it has a very yeasty aroma. There are perfumed spicy notes there but it’s not what hits you first. Its colour is dark and it has a robust flavour with a heavy, hoppy, toasty, almost sour weight on the tongue. They suggest it would go well with a beef stew and I can see that it would stand up to the metallic meatiness of beef. But oddly, I don’t think it needs food—its complexity grows on you, with hints of chocolate and smoke arising. Very interesting.
Sharp’s Brewery, 4.5% ABV)
From the makers of the suddenly ubiquitous Doom Bar, the coppery yeast aroma of this one hits you from a distance as you pour it. It’s a mid-dark colour with an excitable fizz and a big initial head. There is also something floral about the nose and the most striking thing when you taste it is the rich, velvety mouthfeel. The name somehow suggests it’s been aged but I gather it just reflects that fact that the head brewer personally made just one batch of this, last month. I expected an intense wall of flavour but in fact it’s very approachable and balanced. Quaffable but with that intriguing texture and floral perfumed note.
Vale Brewery, 5.2% ABV)
The aroma is sweet, perfumed and somehow fresh, though the colour is very dark. It initially seems heavy on the palate with a bitter/sour taste, but in fact it’s more complex than that. There is an earthiness, with strata of walnuts and coal tar or creosote, but then wafts of violets arise too.
Box Steam Brewery, 4.5% ABV)
A very yeasty, toasty nose. In fact it smells of caramelised oats. It is black and treacly and, despite the bitter hops, on the tongue it is predominantly smooth and sweetish. They apparently use vanilla to make it, and you pick that up, but for me the most striking note is chocolate. Hints of violets too. Moreish, like ice cream.
Cheddar Ales, 4.7% ABV)
Maybe it’s the brewery’s name but when I stick my nose to the bottle I’m sure I can smell cheese on toast. In fact this Christmas porter, dark as a winter sky at night with a sepia head, is based on their normal Totty Pot but with added port. They say this adds notes of chocolate and fruit—and it does, though it’s more fruitcake than fresh fruit, and I would still say that Funnel Blower has a more striking chocolate note. But the flavour evolves in the glass: the bitterness is like espresso coffee but then you get elements of red berries too (perhaps from the port?). An intriguing draught: as you keep sipping to pin down the flavour you suddenly find you’ve nearly finished it… somehow both hefty and gluggable.
Wadworth, 5.8% ABV)
A sour, metallic nose, preceding a heavy, yeasty flavour. It’s soupy, almost like Bovril in some ways. On its own it seems unbalanced, with the sour/bitter elements dominating. So I try it with food: they suggest it goes well with cheddar. I don’t have any to hand but try it with Red Leicester and Wensleydale; with the latter in particular it is an excellent match, the cheese somehow absorbing the sharp aspect of the beer, leaving the drink’s subtler fruity notes to emerge.
Downton Brewery, 6% ABV)
What a monster head—the only beer in this collection that really has a head to speak of. You could shave with it. A dark porter style, this beer is rich and mysterious, and the most mysterious thing about it for me is that it smells and tastes of coffee. There are fruit elements there too, and the Realale.com people suggest liquorice, smoke and salt, but for me it’s mostly coffee. Plenty of hoppy bitterness, which just serves to remind me of espresso.
Conwy Brewery, 4.3% ABV)
A fresh fruity nose—it makes me think of strawberry and raspberry syrups. Pale in colour, almost like lager, though I see it is officially categorised as a “golden ale”, and it’s actually got more depth and a broader range of flavours than lager. I get hints of honey and cloves and something aromatic, like lavender. Perfectly drinkable on its own, though they suggest partnering it with smoked salmon and canapés—a strange image—but alas I have none to hand.
Well, Christmas is over and so is my ale case. Considering that all these beers essentially contain just water, yeast, hops and malted grain (usually barley) the range of flavours is extraordinary. And I would never have thought about matching beers with food in such an exact and satisfying way; as with wine, some of these ales are definitely better with food. And although there aren’t many cocktails that involve beer, the variety of taste here suggests all kinds of possibilities.
Highlights for me include the Funnel Blower, for it’s unexpected chocolately moreishness, and, at the other end of the scale, the light but complex Colomb-O. It’s nuanced rather than grandstanding, making you think that ales like this have been quietly doing their job for centuries. Should I ever find myself having to till a field, I like to imagine this is what I would quench my thirst with at midday. (Better not say that too loud in case Mrs H. hands me some sort of implement and directs me to the garden…)
* I think it was the Duke of York on Roger Street, Bloomsbury, but this was in the 1990s so it may have changed.