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.

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.

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.

Family bonding over flights

Sometimes, visiting a brewery is all about the beer. The chance to finally try beers I’ve read about or had recommended to me for months at a time can be tantalizing.

Other times, what makes the day enjoyable isn’t really the specific beers at all. It’s the downtime, the conversation, the relaxation.

On a scorching Sunday afternoon, my mum and I arrived at Brooklyn Brewery just as it was opening. We found some stools to perch on and ordered one of the signature flights.

The lager and the IPA I’d had many times before, but the brown ale was a pleasant surprise. Rich and deep, with a hint of malted biscuit and berries.

But the real surprise was the sour, or rather, how much my mum liked it. It was refreshingly tart and dry, with undertones of passion fruit.

I’d forgotten how much fun sharing a flight could be, especially with someone with different tastes. My mum has accompanied me to many a craft beer bar or real ale pub over the years, and I’ve learnt a lot about her preferences. She likes pilsners and lagers. Pales and bitters sometimes, but nothing with too much dry-hopping. Darker styles are more hit and miss, with the odd exception of Titanic Plum Porter.

But since I haven’t traditionally been a huge sour ale fan, I’ve never had the opportunity to gauge her appetite for that category of beers. So now, it turns out that we have a new drink to enjoy together. And since it’s a style that I’m a beginner in sampling too, we can learn about the different beers on offer at the same time.

All in all, not bad for a discovery made on a Sunny afternoon in Williamsburg.

Finding cask ale in the desert

Every time I need a taste of home, I head to Sidetrack. It’s a tiny railway-side brewpub in Downtown Albuquerque. It’s a pretty far cry from my previous rail-station-adjacent haunt The Euston Tap (the toilets are in good nick for a start) but it can be equally tricky to get a table on a Friday evening. The real draw of the place for me is that they serve beer on cask; two from their small selection, all the time. That’s rare around here.

The first time I ever sampled one of their cask offerings, I have to admit I was a little disappointed; it was a stout that drank more like a nitro. But over the weeks and months, I tried a few more and I became more convinced. The brown ale was beautifully velvety, and the cask pumps added a smooth, easy-drinking quality to their bitterest IPA.

In the USA, cask tends to be served at cooler temperatures than back home. Right now, in the heat of the New Mexican early summer, I’m not actually sure that I’d truly want it any other way, but in the winter I’d love them to serve it a little warmer.

Cask is mostly a gimmick here. It will likely always stay that way, especially since the spirit of the experiment is often pushed needlessly too far. There’s an ethos to cask that perhaps isn’t fully understood stateside, at least not west of New England.

For example, I recently heard that another favorite taproom of mine would be starting to serve cask on Fridays. Excitedly heading to the bar, I asked the bartender which of the beers was being served on cask.

‘The mango sour’, she replied.

The thought of it made me feel physically sick. I’ll admit that my palate does struggle with (some) sour and farmhouse styles, so this wouldn’t have been my first pick in any world. But even so, this sounded like a pint destined to taste of stale fruit that had been left out in the sun.

Despite a few questionable executions, I’m still glad that the parts of the USA which share little in common with the birthplaces of cask ale are giving it a try. It means there’s innovation, improvement, and that ongoing possibility of one day wandering into a neighborhood brewpub, seeing a handpull upon the counter, and finding a diamond in the rough. Maybe even at the right temperature, though I shall try not to dream too hard.

The paralysis of choice

Earlier this month, I returned to my university city, Nottingham, for an afternoon and evening of wandering between the local watering holes and reminiscing the good ol’ student days.

Anyone who has been to Nottingham will know that what the city lacks in sprawl, it makes up for in sheer pub density. It’s hard to walk for five minutes without happening upon several different places which would be lovely spots to spend an afternoon with a pint and a newspaper. For this reason, planning my Nottingham pub crawl required forward thinking and commitment to a plan. I narrowed the shortlist of my favourite pubs down to just eight. Drinking half pints would become necessary closer to the end of the evening.

We began the afternoon at Canal House, a pub operated by the Castle Rock brewery, set in a charming grade II industrial building next to the canal, complete with two resident narrowboats. As I stepped inside, many happy memories from my student days immediately flooded back. I headed to the bar, and my eyes were drawn immediately to the hand pull ale choices. I scoured the pumps for my old favourite, Castle Rock’s Screech Owl. I couldn’t find it, but I settled on a different pale ale from the same brewery instead.

As the bartender poured our drinks, I took a closer look at the various options on offer. The once small-but-perfectly-formed keg choice of stylish European lagers had exploded into a choice of more than 10 craft beers. Behind these, a tall fridge was well stocked with Belgian beers. Beside this, another fridge was filled to the brim with cans. I started to feel relieved that I’d made a snap decision on what to order, or else I might have been reading the menu for most of the afternoon.

“Is it like you remember?” my husband asked me.
My brow furrowed. I struggled to articulate how it felt to me like something had been lost from the place, even though all that had really happened was that more options had been added. I’d loved the pub for precisely its niche; the reliability of excellently kept Castle Rock ales, the chance to try the brewery’s seasonal ranges, and guest ales from other small local breweries, such as the fantastic Springhead. But now there was a smorgasbord of choice that was almost dizzying. I quickly realised the problem; were it not for the recognisable brick walls and beams lovingly decorated with pump labels, I could be anywhere. The pub had retained its charm, but the bar choice had lost its accent.

Afterwards, we walked to Canning Circus (via an obligatory photo opportunity with the Robin Hood statue) to the Hand and Heart. It’s easily the best cave pub in the city; wonderful ambiance and music, plus far less touristy than Ye Olde Trip. Here, there was a much smaller selection than back at Canal House, and I felt more relaxed for it. Although we’d already eaten, I glanced at the menu out of curiosity. It was short and perfectly formed, just like the cask and keg range.

As we sipped our beers, we talked about how we felt that choice paralysis can be detrimental to a great pub. The places I like best are curators as well as distributors. Changing taps and rotating bottles are great, but I really don’t need a year’s worth of drinking possibilities thrown at me all in one pub visit.

Next, we decided to visit a couple of the places that had sprung up since I last lived in the city – lest I allow my yearning for the past to get the better of me. We stopped for a fantastic oatmeal stout at The Overdraught, a taproom for Totally Brewed. Wittily named too, since the bar occupies a former bank. We also loved The Barrel Drop, a Magpie Brewery micropub nestled in an alleyway. We were lucky enough to catch the opening session of an open mic night, and the atmosphere was warm and welcoming.

We ended the night at the Lincolnshire Poacher, another Castle Rock pub a short stumble away up Mansfield Road, to the north of the city centre. Despite the pouring rain, it was bustling. In the corner, musicians were setting up for a session. The cask range offered a fantastic choice from both long-standing and new local breweries. Lining the walls behind the bar, the whisk(e)y selection was as great as ever. We sat in the back room, where the wooden tables and leather armchairs looked as battered and as loved and as lived in as I recalled.

“This place is just how I remember it” I told my husband, beaming with fuzzy, nostalgic joy. Finally, I felt like I was home.

 

The Gastropub Machine

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in Fulham for an early evening midweek drinks date. Despite being born in southwest London, this corner of the west has eluded me until now. London is often like that. Its sprawl and the sheer scale of paralyzing choice makes it surprisingly easy to leave entire areas untouched for years – even parts that are relatively close to home. I met with my friend at a charming corner pub which has maintained the brass rail around the bar in the style of a proper old boozer, whilst adding chic and modern touches.

Bottles of water and glasses sat on each table. It’s great to see more British gastropubs cottoning on to this trend. One of my favorite things about the casual dining scene in the US is the fact that water is brought almost the second one sits down, before any alcoholic drinks are even ordered. This takes the pressure off; many a time have I tried in vain to catch the attention of waiting staff to chase up my forgotten order of a water jug. Since this gastropub was an order-at-the-bar affair, having the water already placed out was perfect.

As I glanced over the menu out of curiosity, it struck me that the gap between pub grub and fine dining – both in terms of quality and cost – is gradually narrowing. Nowadays, the price of a couple of courses in a gastropub scarcely comes in any cheaper than a meal with wine at an intimate and dimly-lit bistro, but to Gen X and Gen Y, that has never been the point. The casual, low-stress dining experience with minimal table service is beloved by many who find the white tablecloth stereotype stuffy and unnecessary. The same millennials that devoured piled-up Sunday lunches in eclectic pubs, sat at chipped wooden tables, now earn tidy city salaries – but their tastes haven’t really changed all that much. Gastropub quality in the UK has therefore dutifully grown with its audience, and it goes without saying that the prices have too.

It got me wondering how far the gastropub machine can go. There’s a uniformity to the model, and whilst each establishment might have a signature dish, sometimes reading menus can feel like déjà vu. The rate at which drinking holes receive swanky refurbs in conjunction with new menus has become quite prolific.

Sometimes, I like to remember a time when triple cooked chips weren’t so frequently found with a parmesan and truffle sprinkling. And every time a place I love edges towards the hot-smoked-salmon-brunch end of the spectrum, I worry that the charm which I first fell in love with could eventually end up vanishing for good. It happens more and more; I stumble into a favorite Victorian pub to find that their simple and affordable bar snacks menu has been replaced by a three course extravaganza, and not one single main on the menu will pair quite so well with my pint of Harvey’s Sussex Best as that scotch egg would have done.

The whole thing sometimes makes me want a packet of Scampi Fries, enjoyed at a slightly sticky table adjacent to a fruit machine. I suspect that there are no such places left in West London, but I’d be very happy to be proved wrong.

How a bad cask pint can lead to love

If you seek out the greatest beer lovers in any nation, they tend to be inquisitive and hungry for new experiences, especially tasty ones. Prominent beer industry figures frequently note that UK conventions which attract a global audience offer chances to overhear the conversations of American brewers and publicans excitedly discussing cask ale; where to drink it and what to drink. This eagerness to explore new things is to be expected of those with an established passion for great beer and the discovery of such. But are the US folks who are less entrenched in the world of beer as eager to get stuck in?

Sometimes the answer is still yes, but the possibility of a bad experience is higher for tourists than for anyone. When I first met my American husband, I winced as he reported having stumbled into a Nicholson’s pub and ordered a pint of London Glory in the West End on his first night in London. I could make a reasonable guess that it had been served flat, at the wrong temperature, and tasted of brown nothingness. Immediately my mind was racing with ideas of pubs that I could take him to for better cask ale experiences that would hopefully erase that newbie error of ill-fortune for good. Fortunately, he was willing to give cask another try, and loved it by the night’s end (it’s just as well; I’m not sure our relationship would have gotten off the ground had he not appreciated a good hand-pulled pint).

But what about the visitors to the UK who turn their backs on cask after a shoddy and lukewarm experience? How can we convince them to give cask another shot? The upcoming Cask 2019 event run by Affinity Brew Co could help. The participants will be breweries who don’t usually serve their beer in cask, and with trendy names like Beavertown and Pressure Drop already confirmed, it could be just the thing to convince skeptics that cask need not be bland and boring.

Maintaining the good parts of cask’s reputation whilst improving upon the bad parts is a tough PR gig, and is certainly not an overnight job. But together, we can keep the buzz going for this great British institution. And next time you overhear a bad pint ordered in an American accent, why not step in to humbly suggest an alternative? Your advice could even lead to the love of cask spreading a little further.