No other festive season has produced so many strong, warming, wintry ales, notably, those three from Reigate (Surrey), Stoke-on-Trent (Staffordshire) and Faversham (Kent). I shall carry on sampling until at least Twelfth Night.
The most powerful of the new brews in my Christmas stocking was Millennium Ale, from King and Barnes, of Horsham, Sussex, a company increasingly renowned for annual and seasonal specials, all of which are bottle-conditioned. That is to say, they are bottled with a sediment of living yeast so that, unlike filtered beers, they can continue to develop in your cellar.
Millennium Ale, at 9.5 per cent alcohol, left the brewery in September, still enjoying a secondary fermentation in the wax-sealed bottle, and further contained in a wooden box. Some beer-drinkers might jib at the price (pounds 9.99 for 640ml - just over a pint), but this is very special.
At the moment, the orange-coloured ale is somewhat syrupy with the flavours of thick-cut marmalade. As it develops in the bottle, it should have become leaner and more sparkling by the end of winter. As its name suggests, the beer is really intended to be laid down until the year 2,000. By then, it may resemble a maderized champagne.
The company should at that stage be able to celebrate a history of 200 years. The timbered building where the local bishop once levied taxes on the town's cattle market is now a part of the brewery's own retail shop, jostled by less characterful expansions of the past two decades. Inside, the establishment is an equal tangle of old and new: a working (though retired) steam engine and pulley system; a small, copper between- the-wars kettle in one room; a more modern, stainless-steel affair in the next: (incongruously paired with an ancient copper hop-strainer); and relatively small, square, fermenters rather than the giant upright cylinders seen in many breweries.
The Millennium Ale comes with a tiny booklet identifying the variety of barley used (the classic Maris Otter, grown in East Anglia); the man who steeped, sprouted and kilned it (Mervyn Elliott, the third generation of his family to work at Simpson's Maltings, in Ditchingham, on the Suffolk/Norfolk border); the source of water (the brewery's own well, 288ft deep in a stratum known as Tunbridge Wells Greensand); the hops (the Early Bird and Goldings varieties, from the Kent farms of Steven Wickham and Peter Highwood, via a merchant in business almost 200 years) and the (two-strain) yeast.
Maris Otter is the juiciest-tasting of traditional English malting barleys, and, at Ditchingham, it is sprouted by the gentlest of methods: by being spread on the floor, rather than by more modern techniques involving boxes or drums. The soft water is hardened slightly for fullness of "mouth-feel". The hop varieties, in the form of blossoms rather than pellets or extract, confer distinctly aromatic, leafy, resiny, earthy aromas and flavours. The hoppy dryness is highlighted by the cleanness and crispness of the house yeast. The size and shape of the fermenters also make for a fullness of flavour.
I have long been fascinated by the balance of sweet maltiness, herbal hoppiness and dessert-apple fruitiness in the King and Barnes beers, and now better understand how this is achieved.
Small country, breweries have a struggle to survive. King and Barnes has also had more than its share of misfortunes.
In the 1960s, its own maltings burned down. In the 1970s, its yeast ceased to function properly. The strain turned out to have been hobbled by fungicides being used by hop farmers. Fortunately, the brewer of the day had kept a supply in reserve at the British brewing industry's research centre. A couple of years ago, chairman Peter King died of a heart attack, widely believed to have been caused by overwork. He has been replaced by his cousin Bill King, a working brewer.
King and Barnes used to make only one seasonal beer, a strong Christmas ale for staff and friends in the trade. When this was sampled by Oddbins' buyer, Nick Blacknell, in 1992, he asked if the brewery could supply his company with a bottle-conditioned version. Small brewers have not always been as adventurous as they might be, King and Barnes readily cite their debt to Blacknell. They now make a different bottle-conditioned special for every month of the year. January's special is the darker old Ale (4.5 per cent), primed with molasses and tasting of chocolate.
Winter beers date from the days before industrial brewing. When brewers were also farmers, their work on the land slowed as winter closed in. After the barley had been harvested and malted, a new season of brewing would begin around Michaelmas. The winter beers that gradually emerged would be big, malty, sweet, strong and warming. Such brews also recall pre-Christian times, when an Anglo-Saxon wassail might have comforted hearts intimidated by the winter's dark.
With today's growing interest in special beers, winter brews are enjoying a revival. Here are some examples from other regional brewers, north and south:
Ballard's, at Nyewood, near Petersfield, Hampshire, has a bottle conditioned winter brew called Wassail (6-0). This has an orangey colour and is very aromatic, dry, fruity and oaky-tasting. A good aperitif.
Fuller's, of London, has Old Winter Ale (5.3). This is tawny in colour, winey, with a hint of roasted chestnuts. Very satisfying.
McMullen's, of Hertford, has Strong Hart (7.0), "matured for up to a year". This claret-coloured brew is very smooth and slightly syrupy, with port-like flavours, rounding out in a dryish finish. Try it with cheese.
Samuel Smith's, of Tadcaster, near York, has Winter Welcome (6.0), malt- accented and very fruity. For a beer of this strength, it is astonishingly lively - and as refreshing as an orange sorbet.
Lakeland, of Cartmel Fell, near Windermere, Cumbria, has Winter Holiday (5.0), dark brown and bottle-conditioned. This is smooth and soothing, with flavours reminiscent of bitter chocolate