Christmas Beers To Pair With Lockdown – Part 1

The Christmas season is different for a lot of us in 2020. Last year I blogged about a favourite tradition of a cold walk to the pub on Christmas Day; sadly not something that I’ll be able to do this year. To compensate somewhat, I have resolved to try plenty of Christmas ales at home, and over the coming weeks, I will be sharing some of my favourite festive brews of the season. Whilst there is no substitute for a cosy seat next to the fireplace of a bustling pub, that will have to wait until next year. I’m sure I won’t be the only one who will be a least a little relieved to toast the end of 2020 in a few weeks time.

Cheers all!

Bell’s – Christmas Ale
I loved the colour of this one as soon as I poured it. The deep, rich cranberry hue reminds me of hand-pulled pints of ruby ales in cosy pubs. This is quite a bit more boozy than a typical sessionable ruby ale at 7.5%, and is classified as a scotch ale. That said, it drinks easier and smoother than most scotch ales I’ve tried; not too punchy or overly rich. It has aromas of blackcurrant, and a long, fruity finish laced with subtle caramel notes with a full and rounded mouthfeel. Delightful.

Clausthaler – Holiday Brew
I was pleasantly surprised by the full mouthfeel of this for a non-alcoholic beer. Rich and warming, with intense lingering cinnamon and red fruit flavours. A perfect way to ease into a winter drinking session or take a break between heady brews.

Sierra Nevada – Celebration IPA
This is probably one of my favourite beers that I’ve tried for the first time this year, which might have something to do with the fact that my first sip was on the day of the US election result. Intense bitterness cuts perfectly across toast and caramel malt notes, for a long finish with hints of pine and melon.

Anchor Brewing Co – Our Special Ale
This sumptuous dark beer starts with a little bit of cinnamon on the nose, then black pepper and winter spices on the palate with a lingering hint of peppermint. Best consumed under a blanket for maximum warm, comfortable, tingly joy.

Clausthaler kindly sent me a sample to try. I was not paid by anyone for this piece, and the reviews above represent my own opinions.

Sitting on top of the world

On the way to the little clearing in the Jemez where we would camp for the night, my ears popped. Snaking along gravel switchback roads, we climbed further and further towards our summit – 9,000 feet above sea level. My husband and I were in our VW, following our friends in their much more suitable off-road vehicle.

“It’s not much further” they told us on the walkie-talkie.

We’d passed phone signal range some miles back. Mine was already in airplane mode, and just the thought of not getting any news push notifications for the next 24 hours was thrilling. As we reached the top of the road and I saw the view for the first time, I felt my heart quicken as it seemed to press outwards and warm my chest. I needed this.

The last few months, needless to say, have been tough for us all. With social events cancelled and our usual support networks stripped away, it can be exhausting to find special and relaxing moments in the current pandemic-ridden world. In the ‘before times’, planning fun things gave me energy. Arranging holidays is a hobby and researching the best new places to get drinks or dinner is part of my love language. Naturally, I’ve felt adrift due to not being able to plan very much at all at the moment. I feel guilty when I mope about this, because I know that I have a lot to be grateful for. We’ve all had to learn new ways to find our joy.

As a person who suffers from pretty bad Seasonal Affective Disorder, I feel incredibly fortunate to be in a place where it’s sunny all day, every day right now. With the nights gradually getting cooler, I knew that the window to camp was closing, and I hoped that a socially distanced wild camping trip would be just the lift that I needed.

Our friends already knew the way to the spot, so there wasn’t much for me to plan apart from layered clothes, car snacks and the more efficient way to stack the cooler full of beer. I cracked open a can of aptly named Happy Camper IPA whilst setting up the tent. Thanks to some practice a few weeks ago in the Pecos, I made light work of it in about ten minutes. I joined the others to gather rocks and kindling to build a firepit. We got it lit right as the sun dipped out of the sky, as though resting on the edge of the world. Then, dinner cooked on a Colman grill, more beer and conversation, marshmallows and laughter all around when I burnt mine to a crisp. Open skies and enough frenetic energy to keep us all warm as the fire died down.

As we stamped out the last of the embers, I heard someone whisper ‘look up’. The galaxy twinkled overhead, as though the stars were flecks of wet paint, some of which had been smudged across a black canvas. I rolled out a picnic blanket and lay down on the ground to gaze at the glittering sky through the trees.

Prost in place: Drinking to Oktoberfest at home

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oktoberfest is sadly cancelled this year for the 25th time in its history, and Theresienwiese (Theresa’s Meadow) in the west part of the city of Munich will stand empty of its usual jolly guests. Fortunately, it’s easy to obtain delicious Oktoberfest-style beers to enjoy at home.

Only 6 breweries pour at the annual Oktoberfest event in Munich, but breweries around the world create German-style beers each year in celebration of the famous festival. So what exactly is ‘Oktoberfest’ beer? The style that is served at the modern day Oktoberfest event is called ‘Märzen’ (meaning brewed in the month of March). It is a bottom-fermented lager made with Munich and Vienna malts, typically golden to amber in colour. Each brewery has their own unique take on Oktoberfest beer.

I decided to have my own little Oktoberfest from home, sampling some of the German classics, American takes, and finally something that might satisfy those that aren’t lager fans. Prost!

Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier (6.0% abv)
This is the only beer that is served at the Paulaner beer tents at the modern Oktoberfest event. It’s golden in colour with a gentle hop fragrance and drinks like a full-flavoured lager. This beer is tasty but a little too gassy for me. I could imagine getting hiccups after a stein or two.

Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen (5.8% abv)
This amber-coloured beer is more full-bodied and rich than the modern Oktoberfest offering from Paulaner, and seems to me like it would be more sessionable. The full mouthfeel and robust biscuit notes give way to a smooth finish with a hint of caramel and fruit.

Spaten Premium Lager (5.2% abv)
Sadly I wasn’t able to get hold of the Spaten Oktoberfest offering, so I treated myself to some of their lager instead. For me, it’s everything that a great lager should be; rounded mouthfeel, bready notes with a soft hop aroma, and a crisp and refreshing finish.

Santa Fe Brewing Oktoberfest (6.0% abv)
A solid take on the classic Märzen style, this drinks clean and crisp, on the lighter-bodied end of the Märzen spectrum. This beer ends with sweet biscuit undertones a bit like sucking on a Digestive. Overall, lovely.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Oktoberfest (6.0% abv)
Full mouthful, rich toasty malts, but definitely hoppier than I’d expect a German Oktoberfest beer to be. I enjoyed the surprisingly floral aroma and fruity tones to this beer, though I would say that this is the least authentic of the ‘festbiers’ that I tasted.

Wallenpaupack Brewing Oktoberfest (5.9% abv)
Amber in colour, this beer is well-rounded and very drinkable, with a robust mouthfeel and lingering bitter finish. Another great American take on the Oktoberfest Märzen.

Schöfferhofer Hefeweizen Grapefruit (2.5% abv)
I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. It begins with intensely juicy aroma, then a sharp kick at the sides of the tongue which gives way to balanced sweetness, rounded mouthfeel and a lingering bitterness. Fans of Tangfastics and orange Tic Tacs will love this. This also works well served tall with a splash of Campari and plenty of ice.

Disclaimer: Paulaner, Wallenpaupack and Schöfferhofer kindly sent me these samples to try. I was not paid by anyone for this piece, and the reviews above represent my own opinions.

Trial and error with homemade cider

I was sat at the dining table pouring over some editing – and as it happens, eating an apple – when my phone buzzed and I saw a text from my next door neighbor. Their apple tree was working overtime, producing more fruit than they could chop and freeze for future pies, and would I like to take some of it to make cider?

I had never made cider, even from a kit, but I decided that there was no better time than during the time soup of lockdown to try to learn, even if it meant making some mistakes along the way.

apple

After spending a bit of time looking up beginners recipes for homemade cider, I arrived at my neighbor’s house to find the garden lawn scattered with apples. I gathered up as many apples as I could carry and got back to the kitchen to set to work. After rising the apples, I set about quartering them and removing the cores. Some had bruises and wormholes, which meant that special attention was needed when preparing them, taking an extra moment to slice off the black or rotten bits. I decided that I would stick as many apples as would fit in the slow cooker for softening – it was a red hot day and I didn’t really fancy creating a ton of excess heat on the stove top. I put the apples in on high, along with 3/4 a cup (150g) of sugar and enough water to cover (I could fit about 9 cups, or a couple of litres, without the slowcooker overflowing). Four hours later, they were soft enough to mash with a potato masher.

I hadn’t appreciated how many apples it takes to make even a small amount of cider; it’s a LOT. Having generated a somewhat disappointing volume of strained liquid from my softened-then-mashed apple and water mixture, I wondered if I might have messed up the water ratio. A quick Google revealed that a whopping 20lb is standardly required to produce about a gallon (3.7 litres) of cider. I used to think that handling brewing grain was cumbersome, but making cider from scratch at home has given me a whole new appreciation for how hard cidermakers and orchardists work to produce beautiful craft ciders.

My intent for my first batch was to try spontaneous fermentation, but unfortunately this never got off the ground. After a few days of checking on the cheesecloth-covered wide-mouth jar in the fermentation fridge (giving it a good stir each time), I wasn’t seeing any signs of yeasty life. Eventually I gave in and decided to taste a little of the (almost certainly 0% ABV) cider. Naturally it was a little too sweet given the excess sugar that had not been converted.

Not to be deterred by the failed attempt at using wild yeast, I acquired a cider yeast from the local homebrew store and set about making a scaled-up batch, this time on the stovetop. Naturally, the apples softened much faster thanks to the direct heat, and after a cool off in an ice bath in the sink, it was time to strain through a fine mesh sieve into my sanitized fermenter. It went straight into the fermentation fridge held around 66F (18.9C).

cider bottling

After two weeks, I bottled it and put it straight into the fridge. Final gravity reading suggests an ABV of 4%. I tried a little glass of it at bottling stage. It has aromas of earth, funk and citrus and tastes lightly astringent like a tart lemonade, with a funky sweetness in the aftertaste. I’m looking forward to see how the flavor changes after another couple of weeks in bottles. I also have more apples on the way from my neighbor, so my adventures in cidermaking are not quite over yet!

 

 

Meet the brewery donating their first batch to key workers

There’s no such thing as a perfect time to take the plunge with starting a business, but it is hard to imagine a more challenging one than during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s exactly how it worked out for Nick, owner of Steel Brew Co in Plymouth, UK. Within a day of getting the power switched on at his brand new taproom, located in the stunning Grade 1* listed Melville building in the historic Royal William yard, the government ordered the shutdown of businesses.


Like many participants in the recent craft beer boom across the UK, Nick started as a home brewer. His background is in management and IT, and he is still working his day job alongside running the business. After spending last summer out and about in the community doing pop-up events, he decided to commit to opening his taproom and brewery premises.


Nick told me that the whole experience has been a huge learning curve, particularly because he’d never used a six barrel system before. By the time the first brew day for Steel in their new premises arrived, the supply chain had almost collapsed. “I had this moment where I thought, I can either go for it or not, and if I don’t, I don’t know when I will” Nick said. “It seemed a very fitting sentiment to give whatever we produced to key workers.”

steel taproom

Giving away free beer may sound simple, but Nick explained that the logistics of getting the beer to some businesses has presented challenges. “Getting into the NHS has been really difficult” he noted.


The beer to be donated gets packaged for distribution using cardboard milk containers. It takes Nick about 40 mins to pour 100 units. Then, he and his wife and dog hop in the car to make the deliveries. Nick explained that they have deliberately kept their team small to limit risk. On one delivery run, Nick and team arrived at a local Parcel Force depot, and the guy who came out thought it was a joke. “It felt like a really positive thing to do” Nick smiled.

steel brew beer

As Nick tells me of the taproom, which uses recycled pallet furniture and an open-plan layout, with no screen between the seating area and brewing equipment, I’m eager to visit. The space he has selected perfectly lends itself to this open concept, which for me is reminiscent of the breweries of Portland, Oregon. “If someone was sat at bar space next to the brewing equipment and I’m cleaning, we’ll have to put a sign up saying ‘please don’t wear a nice shirt’” Nick joked.


Nick is optimistic about the future, despite the strange beginnings for his venture, and thinks that the southwest of the UK is ripe for expansion of the craft beer industry. He talks of bringing in a head brewer once he is ready to grow the operation, but is clear that it won’t quite be ‘business as usual’ in the way that he initially imagined it for quite some time. “We keep talking about when the lockdown is lifted, as if that’s going to be a single thing. It isn’t.”


Luckily, Nick has plenty of ideas about how to adapt to the new reality, like click-and-collect style orders, and setting specific timeslots for beer pick-ups to assist with social distancing. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds.”

steel box

Burnt biscuits and perfect timing

I’ve been thinking a lot about time management recently. In particular, the art of staying on top of things. Paradoxically, this can sometimes seem more of a challenge when time stretches out before me, seemingly limitless and unpunctuated. A little pressure to juggle multiple things is often needed for me to be maximally efficient with my time. I pride myself on once getting ready for work at a conference in Stockholm in precisely eight minutes, after waking up at a boutique hotel with one of the top five worst hangovers of my life. In contrast, nothing seems to be a more foolproof way to make me exactly five minutes late than having the luxury of an entire morning to get ready.

In lockdown, there’s new rhythms to contend with. Many of us are trying to fathom how and why we feel less efficient than ever, despite having fewer places to be and fewer things to do. My usual habit of taking on too many tasks at once like a cheerful circus plate-spinner has no place in this reality. I’ve begun to learn to let go of the frenetic energy which usually serves me well when I need to do five things at once, and really focus on doing just one. It hasn’t been easy. I want to become someone who can live like this longer term; someone who can actively choose focus and reduced background noise over chaos, even the organised kind.

It will take a while until this new version of me can reach full effectiveness. Right now, things keep popping up which I’ve neglected to do. Last weekend, I suddenly remembered the leftover stout that I bottled in early December. Typically, I like to taste homebrews fortnightly throughout their drinkable lifespan. I absorb the data hungrily and feed it into my ever-growing spreadsheet of recipe footnotes, all designed to make each new batch better than the last. This time, I had simply forgotten.

Tentatively, I cracked it open and poured it into a tulip glass. As I went to take the first sip, I was met with a sweet and roasted aroma of slightly burnt biscuits; the sort that have been removed from the oven a couple of moments too late, but not so late that they are spoilt. These were my favourite kind as a child; treacle-coloured edges, blackened raisins, a satisfying crunch from the first bite.

By the time I finished drinking my homebrew, I had no idea if it was the best of the batch or not, and I didn’t write down anything about it. A week later, I’m still thinking about that first aroma, redolent of my haphazard childhood baking days. It was a reminder that not everything has to happen perfectly on my strict invented schedule in order to be successful or enjoyable. Time doesn’t have to be my enemy, even when a little of it slips through my fingers.

Pining for pubs

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I have not enjoyed a beverage of any kind in a pub, bar, taproom, cafe or restaurant for over a week. It’s a strange feeling.

I am, of course, supporting local breweries by buying take-out growlers and crowlers. I’ve made a particular effort to support those that don’t have any distribution to local bottle shops and grocery stores. In addition, I’ve tried my best to order the beers that needed drinking the soonest. That Czech-style lager I had my eye on will still be there in a couple of weeks in excellent form, but the delicious NEIPA I devoured at the weekend won’t weather the closures quite so well.

It has been fantastic to support local businesses; I count myself incredibly lucky to live close to so many wonderful breweries and to have the means to throw them a little custom during this trying time. That said, I miss grabbing a drink out and about. Going to brewery taprooms, pubs and bars is never just about the beer. It’s a bookend to a day, a chance to watch the world go by, and a way to share an experience with someone.

Right now, even turning up in-person to buy the beer to take away can’t emulate any of that. The taprooms are eerily quiet, and my order echoes around the room. The poor staff look as exhausted from it all as I look and feel too. I try my best to offer my sympathies, and ensure to tip generously. Knowing I’m giving my support to local business is a good feeling; just not nearly as good a feeling as if I was able to stick around.

I keep thinking about some of my favorite pubs back in the UK and trying to imagine them empty. For places like the Harp, which I’ve never seen any less than bustling, even on a Monday lunchtime, it’s near impossible to envisage.

Right now, the uncertainty is the scariest part. No one knows quite when all will be back to normal in our various corners of the globe. All I know is how much I’m going to enjoy sitting on a bar stool, chatting to friends and strangers alike, and listening to the warm, comforting hum of voices swirl around the room again.

Dodging the rain in a bottle shop

The air in Grand Rapids in late summer smells of cut grass and drenched daisies. The pewter-colored clouds overhead remind me of Cardiff, as do the suburban pavements, with weeds peeking out of each corner in almost impossibly vibrant shades of green.

As I stroll, the scent in the air changes a little. Rain is coming again, much sooner than I thought. I’m not entirely sure how I know this, and I don’t waste much time trying to figure it out. I’m walking faster now, the worn soles of my leather boots sliding against slippery curbs. I’m calculating how long it will take until I’m dry inside; ten, maybe fifteen minutes.

Then comes a clap of thunder, as if arguing with my plan. I scan the opposite side of the street for shops where I can take shelter, and spot one with a creamy orange glow seeping from the inside. I dart across the road like a nervous deer, and clumsily fall into the store just as the heavens open. The shopkeeper gives me a knowing smile. Revitalizing AC blows in my face as I wipe tiny beads of sweat from the back of my neck.

As I clean raindrops and condensation from my glasses, I’m delighted to find myself in a bottle shop. After replacing my glasses to my face, I realize that it is actually a beer, wine, liquor and gourmet food shop all under one roof. I slip into the walk-in fridge, reading each label for longer than necessary to savor the cold.

After twenty minutes of browsing, the rain begins to ease and I see my opportunity to dash back to my lodgings. I buy a selection of local beers and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon before leaving.

The kitchen of the place I’m staying is unfamiliar to me. I can’t appear to find any glasses; only jars. I decide I’m too thirsty to continue the hunt through the cupboards.

I crack open a can of Jaa Raspberry Black Ale from Dark Horse Brewing. It both smells and tastes like Black Forest gateaux in a glass. The aroma is a rich, indulgent bouquet of red and black fruit. Then with the first sip, burnt sugar and bitter chocolate. I finish it on the sofa, with my feet on the coffee table, eyes closed, listening to the pounding rain outside.

The Christmas Day pub trip

First comes the hard part; self-restraint. Bucks Fizz will be flowing freely all morning after all, and I will need to stop myself from overindulging on the bubbles in order to save myself for a pre-lunch pint.

We’ll open some presents and snack on bacon-wrapped sausages (crispy and a little burnt around the edges, just the way they should be), before bundling up in woolen jumpers and long coats to head outdoors. It’s around a half hour walk to the pub. It’s not the closest one to my childhood home, but it is the best. The sort of place with old tankards hanging from the walls, barrels repurposed as perching tables in corners, and a hardy wooden bar top streaked with scrapes from the decade, layered over scratches from the decade before that.

But first, the journey, which in itself is a ritual. We’ll say ‘merry Christmas’ to each person we pass, because for some reason talking to strangers in the street is appealing to even the most withdrawn of Brits at this time of year. Chalk it up to the fact that everyone has had a tipple with breakfast, and inhibitions have floated away with the morning mist.

My favourite part of winter walks when I was younger was to stomp across the frosted grass tips in the park, turning the tiny white crystals to water with a satisfying ‘crunch’ sound. To be honest, it still is. The only difference is that my mother doesn’t tell me not to get my shoes messy anymore.

Somehow, the reduced opening hours of pubs on Christmas Day mean that there is all the more to savour. I can already anticipate the warmth that will greet me as the door swings open, spilling the heat from the fire onto the chilly street as I step inside. My glasses will mist up, obscuring my view of the smiling faces and colourful festive jumpers.

It will be noisy and crowded, but undeniably cheerful. Locals will be sat on bar stools as their dogs sit at their feet, lapping at large bowls of water. The barman will be wearing a brightly coloured waistcoat and a matching tie, the same as always.

We’ll seek out a spot to sip at our perfectly pulled pints, standing shoulder to shoulder, undoubtedly bumping into some people that one of us knows.

The cold air won’t feel as harsh the second time around. A cool breeze against my now flushed face will enliven me just as the post-pint stupor looms, and I’ll turn my mind to preparing lunch. And although there will be many other pub trips to come during the holidays, there won’t be one that is quite the same for another 365 days.

My Oktober

Among my beer-related ambitions is to go to Munich for Oktoberfest. Luckily, one doesn’t have to get on a plane to get a taste of Bavaria during the autumn; Oktoberfest-style beers are typically easy to find this time of year. They’re smooth and comforting like the slightly warmer jacket the season calls for.

Oktoberfest beers are indicative of the changing season. The leaves are falling and the weather is changing. Warmer clothes are brought from the back of the wardrobe to the front. It’s darker upon waking up to make breakfast – and then dark again by the time dinner is served.

As someone who suffers from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), I’m grateful to be spending this October somewhere with plenty of sunlight, but the change in temperature and reduced daylight hours can still be jarring. Creating new routines and indulging myself has helped, be that changing into pajamas early on a Sunday evening to finish that piece of writing on the sofa drinking Märzen from the bottle, or seeking out a patio heater for a midweek pint under the stars.