Well not in Shropshire. Shrewsbury is not a small town: at 72,000 people it's nearly the size of Galway City, but modern British craft beer seems to have all but passed it by. The town and its hinterland has many charming pubs, but the accent in all of them is on traditional British cask beer, as I'm sure it has been for decades. In the off licences, premium bottled ales -- your brown bitters and golden ales by the half-litre -- rule supreme. One gourmet grocer carries a handful of Wild Beer Co. offerings, as well as some of the more inventive Salopian Brewery beers, and you can get Punk IPA in Tesco, but otherwise craft doesn't happen. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, and I certainly wasn't wanting for a drink at any point, but I just thought it was interesting, given the thousands of words about British craft beer that I read every week. I wonder what the largest town in Britain without a specialist craft beer pub and off licence is?
Handpump three on the night before Christmas Eve was pouring Bauble from Box Steam Brewery in faraway Wiltshire. This is a pale reddish amber and rather thin and insipid. It might be a passable light quaffer if it wasn't for the decision to add Christmas spices to it. Cinnamon and water: it's not a great combination. Bauble is a miserly sort of Christmas beer, trying hard to appear jolly but lacking the substance to be convincing.
A brief foray into Shrewsbury led to The Armoury, an upmarket riverside dining pub with which I had a bit of a run-in on my last visit. No surly service this time, but the beer wasn't great. I picked Sabut Jung, a 6.8% ABV IPA from another local operator, Battlefield. It's a cheery bright orange and there's a fun zesty sherbet foretaste, but that gets squashed quite suddenly and unceremoniously by a hot syrupy quality, rendered especially antisocial by an inappropriately high serving temperature. Properly kept I'd say this is a fairly decent sup, but warmth is not good for it.
On another evening we dropped by the Mytton Arms in nearby Habberley. It's a cosy little community pub with four beers on cask including two from Hobsons. I remember enjoying Hobsons Mild so I started with one of those. I hadn't realised it was almost a dozen years since I last tasted it. It's a beautiful beer, so light and easy-going with just a gentle hint of cocoa sweetness. After that I switched to Hobsons Best, quite a plain golden bitter with a lightly honeyish waxy bitterness and soft honeydew melon fruit. Uncomplicated but very well suited to caning back in quantity.
Meanwhile, Santa's sack had a range of premium bottled goodies in it for me. First out was Adnams Triple Knot, an intriguing fellow in a 33cl flip top, 10% ABV, infused with lavender, jasmine and orange blossom and aged six months before bottling. "Pear" is among the descriptors on the label and I can see that: there's a distinct acetone element to the foretaste. It's not overpoweringly hot, however, aided by a big spiced malt substance giving it a kind of Christmas pudding character, all sultanas and figs. The low fizz and light spices make it untypical of Belgian tripel but I don't know if there's a better style category for it. Overall this is a lovely warming winter sipper with plenty going on without being busy or unbalanced.
Next up a pale ale from Bath Ales called Wild Hare. I was wary because Bath's signature move is big butterscotch, and I couldn't see that working well in something this light-coloured. And indeed it doesn't. There's a biting waxy bitterness and a touch of lychee and apple fruit, but lots and lots of sickly buttery toffee too. Altogether it makes for some tough drinking, lacking the bright and clean flavours the style demands.
Greene King's Suffolk Springer is next, a dark brown ale of 6% ABV, smelling a bit skunky as it poured from the clear glass bottle. No sign of that on tasting; in fact there's very little sign of any hops at all. It's a huge and lumbering maltbeast, full of treacle, syrup, chocolate sauce and raisins. And it's not bad: nicely warming if not particularly complex. I lived the beer-writing cliché of actually drinking this by the fireside and it worked. Fair play.
Something a bit more micro next: Jimmy's Flying Pig, a bottle-conditioned bitter from Shalford Brewery, branded to tie-in with the Jimmy's Farm TV series and restaurant. It's a deep gold colour and I managed to get it into the glass without any sediment. There's an unfortunate agricultural foretaste: sharply acidic like vomit with an added manure funk. Behind this there's a dry homebrewish graininess, finishing on a note of rubber. It's truly awful amateur-grade stuff, with absolutely none of bitter's redeeming features.
And so to Yorkshire, and the Black Sheep Brewery. For the season, they had a 4% ABV dark red ale called Blitzen out. I was surprised by how bitter it was: a medicinal acridity putting me in mind of Fisherman's Friend sweets in particular. Wintery, perhaps, but not very Christmassy, and certainly not cheery or festive. I thought I might get used to it but each sip was as shocking and jarring as the last. I'm sure the brewers meant it to taste like this but it's not for me.
And that was the sum total of my Christmas beer ticking. Wisely I'd brought a stash of hoppy Irish IPA over with me, and was very glad of the balance it provided to this lot. I also took a couple of UK beers I didn't have time to drink back with me and will cover those off on Wednesday.