Food & Drink: Forget champagne. Toast the new year with British beer

Spicy winter beers have been brewed for centuries. For 2000 there's a bigger selection than ever.
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The Independent Culture
A RICH, malty, sustaining brew to keep out the winter cold is a tradition that certainly pagan Britons many centuries ago appreciated. Such brews soothed fears during the shortest days that the sun would perhaps never shine again.

And just as wine is made seasonally, so is beer. Brewing was a winter activity until the invention of refrigeration. Before hops were used to flavour beers, herbs, and berries, such as bog myrtle, were used. When further travel introduced exotic fruits and spices, such as nutmeg, oranges, and cinnamon and ginger, these foods were seen as Christmas luxuries, used in beer as well as breads, cakes and puddings. ("Bread" and "brewed" have the same etymological origin, both refer to products made from grain, water and yeast.)

With the growth of interest in beers of character, these traditions have been rediscovered. The Liverpool brewery, Cain's, has a spiced Christmas Ale with an appetisingly dusty bitterness reminiscent of cinnamon, and a fruitier Millennium Ale, with a suggestion of fresh dessert apples - both at a modest 5.0 per cent rating. Another brewery in the north-west, Jennings, of Cockermouth, Cum- bria, has an ale called Millennium Mash (named after the process in which the grains of malted barley are made into an infusion). This has a cracker-like maltiness, which is beautifully counterpointed by a lingering bitterness - a characteristic deriving from a Continental hop variety called Styrian Goldings, added at a late stage. The Millennium Mash is one of several seasonal or commemorative brews with the bottle housed in a gift box - the perfect Christmas stocking- filler for the beer-lover.

In the Midlands, the Mansfield Brewery offers a malt-accented, almost vanilla-like, Millennium Ale (8.5 per cent) that gains fullness and roundness from fermentation in open vessels and an unusually long maturation.

In Oxfordshire, the Wychwood Brewery (5.0 per cent) has the aromatic, earthy, Old Father Time Millennium Ale, with the spiciness of a hop variety called Bramling Cross. The label promises that "the hop bitterness will scythe through the malt" - and it does. I admire brewers who can boast about their beer's bitterness.

What would a beer taste like if it contained no hops at all? In Suffolk, the St Peter's Brewery has, in its distinctive green bottle, a Millennium Ale (7.0 per cent) spiced only with "secret botanicals". It is deliciously treacly and licorice-like.

The London brewery, Fuller's, has a Winter Ale (5.3 per cent) full of malty and hoppy power, and a Vintage Ale (8.5 per cent) in which the same attack is stunning. (It also has a darker, blackberry-tinged draught beer this year with the name Jack Frost).

In Hampshire, Gale's Millennium Brew (10 per cent) is ruby in colour, with the same cidery, calvados-like character as its regular Prize Old Ale, which is darker and sappier and more syrupy. King and Barnes in Horsham, Sussex, produce a different Christmas Ale every year. The 1999 edition (8.0 per cent) is honey in colour and flavour, with a suggestion of orange blossom and a firm, lemon-marmalade dryness. This brewery also makes a Millennium Celebration Ale (8.0 per cent) marketed in a gift box by a company called Christopher Columbus. The beer is dark and sweetish, with a suggestion of brown sugar and a stinging, rummy fruitiness. Nearby in Lewes, Harvey's has a creamy (condensed milk?) Christmas Ale tasting a little of cake (8.1 per cent).

The Kent brewery, Shepherd Neame - itself in the heart of hop country - last year issued a Christmas beer that was flavoured with cherries. This year, the Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale (6.5 per cent) is flavoured with oranges, as well as almond essence and cloves. It has a head that looks like syllabub, a creamy, apricot-like aroma, a macaroon-like, malty, palate, and a juicy finish with the dryness of bitter almonds.

Shepherd Neame has also produced a Millennium Ale (6.5 per cent) named Kent Gold. It eschews the flavourings of the past in favour of a possible hop of the future - a new variety called First Gold. All hops naturally contain a compound called limonene, which also occurs in citrus fruits, but First Gold is especially rich in it and it makes for beer that is peachy, juicy and champagne-like.

This could well be the beer that's in my glass when I see in the millennium.

Christmas and millennium beers are widely available from chains and specialist outlets. The Beer Shop, 14 Pitfield Street, London, stocks more than 30 beers, including those described (mail order 0171-739 3701)

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