04 December 2015

Christmas for home brewers

Session logoThe Session's co-founder Jay Brooks takes the helm for this month's outing, and the theme is "Holiday Beers" (he includes a nice little historical note on the use of the term in that post). As it happens, I have two very special Christmas beers to hand, microbrewed at Ireland's largest industrial brewery.

Back in October, Diageo announced the Smithwick's Homebrew Challenge, the first time they've ever done anything like this, other than among their own employees. Amateur brewers from all over the country were invited to brew a Christmas beer, with two finalists being chosen to scale up their recipes on the Guinness pilot kit in St. James's Gate. Over 70 beers were submitted and a fun evening was had in early November, whittling it down to the best. Sadly, the beer we chose on the night as the winner ended up being disqualified on a technicality so it was the brewers of the second and third placed ones that were rewarded with a day out hauling maltsacks in the Liberties.

To choose a final champion, the two beers are being put to a public vote. It started in Dublin on Wednesday and finishes, appropriately, in Kilkenny tomorrow night (full schedule). Happily I don't have to venture out to taste them because the lovely PR people who are organising the whole thing for Diageo sent me a bottle of each and a ballot paper.

The spec, way back at the start, was for a beer to enjoy "while the fire blazes beside you". I brought these to the fireside but I didn't light it because the temperature was still in double figures outside. It would just be a waste of logs. And I proceeded in ascending order of strength, which meant the first one was Sebastian's Apple Pie Christmas Ale, no tiddler at 6.7% ABV. It took a bit of work to pour, the head bouncing back enthusiastically at each top-up, eventually forming a deep and even layer of tight off-white foam. Under that, the body is a beautiful and clear burnished copper colour. It certainly smells of apple pie: the tart fruit and nutmeg conjuring memories of Halloween more than Christmas. The texture is properly weighty, with a very decent caramel malt base providing a solid foundation. And it's just as well because the spices sweep in, fresh and busy, knocking everything else aside. The nutmeg taste is incredibly vibrant, to the point where it doesn't really integrate with the beer: it's almost like it's been sprinkled on top after pouring. Trying to squint at what's between that and the malt, I think I detect a light sourness which must be the apple, but you probably wouldn't spot it if it wasn't in the name of the beer. Overall, a gimmicky but enjoyable effort. By the end of the glass, however, I was wondering if it would be better stripped of those obstreperous spices.

Its rival is an even more rosy-cheeked 7.5%-er: Brian & Stephen's Old Town Christmas Ale. It's only a slight shade darker: garnet, I'd say, though just as flawlessly clear. More cinnamon and nutmeg are on board, joined on this occasion by star anise. And the anise rules the aroma and puts a big black footprint on the flavour too, particularly the finish: that rubbery medicinal tang of real olde worlde liquorice. I love it. The spices add light relief to this, but we're still in the dusty old sweetshop with the humbugs and the hard toffees. The old fashioned feel suggested by the name really does come through in the product. And it all hangs together much better than the Apple Pie one, though again it's far from subtle in what it does.

Neither are world changers, but I think Old Town is the one I'd like to see as a permanent seasonal, not that that's on the cards. There's a charm to its brashness and it makes great use of its big strength without being hot and estery. So there's my choice of candidate.

Good luck to both contenders in the public vote. I've really enjoyed participating in this bit of macrobrew sponsored fun. I hope the Smithwick's branding folk deem it worth a second go next year. And I'll be taking a closer look at the new public face of the Guinness pilot brewery in Monday's post.

Result: Brian and Stephen rightfully took the prize, presented by DJ Rick O'Shea at the Guinness Open Gate Brewery on 9th December. Both beers will be available at Open Gate until they run out.

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