In some ways, Americans have got the right idea. Sure, they have a flamin’ hot cheeto as president, lively debate on whether seeing a doctor should put you into crippling, lifelong debt, and no Marmite. But at least they have Thanksgiving: a holiday centred on the idea of gratitude, family, and overeating.
More importantly, however, Thanksgiving is an unbreakable barrier, before which no self-respecting retailer would dare advertise Christmas gifts or play music featuring the jingling of bells. Here in the UK, we’re stuck with listening to endless repeats of Last Christmas by WHAM as early as November 1st.
The sole consolation is the arrival of Christmas beers. If circumstances demand that I feel “festive”, I’ll be damned if I’m doing it sober.
Northern Monk, Festive Star
I spotted this cheeky little number on cask at the Craft Beer Co in Brixton on November 15th, which I suppose is acceptably close to Christmas. Besides, if there’s any brewer for whom I’m willing to overlook early festive branding, it’s Northern Monk.
The clip advertises this as a vanilla, cinnamon and chocolate porter: somewhat redundantly as it happens, because immediately on picking this up I’m assaulted by precisely those aromas. The smell is intense and rich, roasty and chocolatey, almost enough to sustain me for the evening without taking a sip.
On the tongue it’s sweet, smooth and creamy. There’s not a rough edge to be found here: any alcoholic edge or flavour imbalance has been sanded away to nothing. As it warms up a little the adjuncts arrive, and it starts feeling like a glass of chocolate eggnog: warming, rich, and satisfying.
Is it too early in the year to start drinking Christmas beers? Probably. Is this beer good enough I’d consider drinking it in August? Yes. 4
Amundsen, Super Santa
We’re back in Ghost Whale, and the staff look a little bemused when I stumble in demanding their Christmassiest beer – not least because Christmassiest is not a real word. They delivered, however, and so we got stuck into this choco shake stout.
Super Santa is inky black and looks a little thin: at 4.7%, perhaps this is to be expected. The head is lively and generous, caramel froth.
On the nose we pick up raisin and pumpernickel, cinnamon rolls and cardamom. Somewhat absurdly, I’m convinced it smells precisely like the Nordic Bakery on Golden Square in central London.
“It smells more flavoursome than it is,” a drinking buddy opines, and he’s quite right: while the aroma is all raisin and spice, the taste is totally different. It’s bitter, burnt caramel and candied peel on the palate, leading to more burnt caramel on the finish.
This beer confuses me, but that’s perhaps my own fault for demanding a Christmas ale in November. Worth a try for the novelty, but I won’t be back for a second can. 2
Harpoon, Winter Warmer
Finally, we get home and I can crack open the real reason for wanting to review Christmas beers: this can from the Beer52 Harpoon pack I’ve been sitting on for the last few months.
Immediately on pouring I’m surprised. The Winter Warmer can design is not dissimilar to Harpoon’s Dunkin Donuts Porter, which must have primed me to expect a darker beer here. Instead we’re greeted by this ruby red, crystal clear body and light, loose head.
Having realigned our expectations, we give it a sniff. Winter Warmer smells malty sweet: like it hasn’t quite finished fermenting, rather than the dextrose you find in some heavier ales. There is perhaps a hint of nutmeg on the nose, but we may just be subconsciously filling in the gaps having read the can description.
On the tongue, Winter Warmer brings a sharp effervescence and more sweetness. Beyond that, however, there’s no real flavour. Certainly no cinnamon, as was promised, but more importantly it’s lacking in any real beer flavour beyond fresh wort. The finish is sweet, coming back to that nutmeg we picked up on the nose.
Nutmeg and cinnamon are highly Christmassy flavours (definitely a real word), but they’re sadly lacking in this beer. A shame. 1