Shepherd Neame’s Christmas Ale is a strong English ale with a clear, amber body and loose, frothy head. Spiced, malty aromas precede a fruity, sweet palate and plummy finish. It treads the balance between bringing fruity, spiced notes and blowing your head off with clove as many Christmas beers end up doing. The sort of beer your dad might like. This Christmas Ale is vegan-friendly.
Maybe it’s the weather turning colder. Maybe it’s the oppressively cheerful adverts suddenly plastered over every bus shelter and billboard. Perhaps it’s Amazon’s algorithm, which has been insistently suggesting I buy Love, Actually for around a week now. Whatever the reason, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
While December is predominantly a month for warming, toasty stouts, there’s a soft spot in my cold, jaded heart for a Christmas-themed beer. I know, deep down, that the pint of “Reindeer Fuel” poured from a handpump adorned with flashing LEDs won’t be all that good, but I order it all the same. The artificial time pressure to drink it before New Year rolls around is simply too strong. Which is why, on seeing a golden Christmas wreath decorating a beer bottle at my local Co-op, I had no choice but to bring it home.
Shepherd Neame’s Christmas Ale comes in a traditional, brown glass bottle decorated with very busy, metallic labelling. Busy, it turns out, because the label includes a wealth of information I had never even dreamt might be necessary to include on a beer bottle. “This label is issued by Shepherd Neame & Co”, the text proclaims, making me wonder whether other breweries have been sneakily labelling each others’ beer as a practical joke.
Of interest amongst the wall of text on the backside of the bottle is the calorie count. While I love minimalist packaging as much as the next Instagram addict, proper nutrition information on my booze bottles is something I can very much get behind.
This Christmas Ale pours amber and perfectly clear. The head is loose and quickly dissipates; a few lonely bubbles saunter to the surface as the beer settles but it’s largely quiet. “Forget the fizz”, brag the brewery’s notes on their website, which may reflect this beer’s carbonation as much as their preference for it over prosecco.
The aroma is boozy. A sickly, alcoholic warmth fills my sinuses, reminding me that this beer weighs in at a respectable 7.0% and has had glucose syrup added to boost the raw alcohol content. I also find notes of raisin, blackberry, plums, and the barest hint of cloves.
Sweetness hits the tongue first, sugary rather than malty. Alcohol warms the palate, enriching the dark plum notes as they emerge. The mouthfeel is syrupy, not gloopy but thick enough to feel satisfying. The finish is spiced and warming: more clove, perhaps allspice.
Aged three or four, I used to sneakily steal sips of my father’s beer by dunking a fist into his pint glass and licking it off my hand. If he’d been drinking something like this Christmas Ale, I can completely understand why I was so enamoured of it as a toddler: it’s sweet, spicy, and warming. Decades later, I struggle with it. The sweetness is overwhelming, the mouthfeel too sticky and syrupy.
In her first season judging the Great British Bake Off, Prue Leith explains her judging rationale saying “it’s got to be worth the calories.” At more than 300 calories a bottle, I’m inclined to say this beer might not be worth it at any other time at year…but at Christmas, when calorie counting goes out the window, perhaps I can make an exception.