Mind! I don't mean to say I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the similie; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for.The first page of A Christmas Carol is my favourite thing ever written. I wouldn't be Mr Dickens's biggest fan -- I'd hazard that few of us who struggled through Great Expectations at A-Level count ourselves so -- but those first paragraphs are so beautifully crafted. The story eventually drowns in sentimentality, but for the opening sequence alone it deserves its classic status.
The opportunity to pay tribute to my fav bit of prose comes by way of Phil at Beersay, host of the December 2011 Session, who picked the story as his theme. In keeping with it I have unchained three spirits from my beer fridge to examine for signs of yuletide cheer.
The Beer of Christmas Past
Old Dickens had gone to join Jacob Marley some years before 4th August 1893, the date on which Fuller's of Chiswick brewed a Double Stout which they've more recently brought back from the grave with the assistance of European beer's necromancer-in-chief Ron Pattinson.
At 7.4% ABV, Fuller's Double Stout is normal strength for a pre-1917 stout recipe, and a reminder for Irish drinkers that plain old Guinness used to be up in these high reaches too (you can watch the gravities plummet on the table in this post from Ron's blog a few years ago). From the beige head I get an immediate treacle aroma. I'm guessing the finishing gravity was quite high as there's a huge and quite sticky body. That said, it remains wonderfully drinkable: smooth and not too sweet, exuding warming boozy heat and finishing with just a small carbonic bite.
Interestingly I also get a waft of smoke from it and, coupled with the smoothness, I'm immediately reminded of Franciscan Well's Shandon Century, another understated powerhouse of a stout. It's hard to beat this style of beer when it's time to batten down the hatches for winter.
The Beer of Christmas Present
Kids today, with their double-imperial this and their barrel-aged that, chasing the latest in hop highs and extreme methodologies. One beer I happened across recently combined all of this in one neat bottle: Great Divide Rumble, a barrel-aged IPA. It's an unusual proposition for the Denver brewer, since like so many of its contemporaries it values big fresh hop flavours in its IPAs. Stick them in oak and the only way is down, isn't it?
Well no, not necessarily. Rumble pulls off the feat of combining the best bits of all. It starts with a sherry-like nose, all enticing wood and alcohol with none of the oxidised warning signs this aroma often elicits. The malt jumps out first on tasting: a big toffee hit, given momentum by 7.1% ABV. A fresh hop-burst follows quickly: mellow soft fruit tempered with a sharp bitterness when the beer is cold, but mellowing even further as it warms. There's no mistaking that the hops here are bang up-to-the-minute fresh ones losing none of their flavour power under the influence of the oak which finishes the beer off.
There's a slight vanilla tang and a little bit of sappiness meeting the pine hop bitterness, but it's mostly present as a subtle complexity, an encore to the hops' big number. I imagine that achieving this delicate level of woodiness in a strong beer is incredibly difficult to do and is perhaps the reason we don't see more barrel-aged IPAs around. But perhaps we'll see more of them in the future.
The Beer of Christmas Yet-To-Come
To mark this rising tide of beery variety I have the first seasonal from Mitchelstown's 8 Degrees brewery, a two-man operation that has been turning out beers for a mere eight months now. A Winter's Ale is 7.5% ABV and a dark red-brown colour: not as black as the Phantom in our story, but not far off. I met it at the Taste of Christmas show last weekend where there was an excellent showing by the Irish craft breweries, both as part of The Beer Club bar and at stalls of their own. Last year, apparently, it was wall-to-wall Beck's Vier and nothing else. ¡Viva la Revolución!
For the brewing of A Winter's Ale a blend of ten mulling spices has been provided by local spicery Green Saffron, which includes cinnamon, cloves and star anise in no uncertain quantities. They give the beer an oddly sour nose which I found a little off-putting at first, but they really get to work properly on tasting. First you get a wonderful warming sweetness and then the spices come in on top: a bittersweet oriental confection that puts a keen edge on what might otherwise be a rather one-dimensional strong porter. At the end there's a lingering banana ester flavour peeping out from under the spices. The texture is smooth, the carbonation gentle and on the whole it's very drinkable, despite the busy spicing. Hot on the heels of Metalman's Alternator and Trouble's Pumpkin Ór I'd love to see even more of these seasonals with seasoning.
All that remains for us now is to wake, send a passing boy off to the poulterer, share a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop with young Cratchit, and finish on a phrase so hackneyed I can't bring myself to repeat it. Just go and read the story.