Winter's Ale

Beers to put hairs on your chest

How was it for you? I drank all the Pilgrim Pudding Ale, (6-8 per cent alcohol, toffeeish and fruity), with the plum duff. After dinner, sinking fast, I polished off the treacly Christmas Ale (7.2) from Titanic. Nor could I resist opening the gift-boxed bottle of Shepherd Neame's cinnamon- spiced Christmas Ale (6.7), with its dusty, licorice root flavours.

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

New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Kellie Bright as Linda Carter and Danny Dyer as Mick Carter

EastEnders Christmas specials are known for their shouty, over-the-top soap drama but tonight the show has done itself proud thanks to Danny Dyer.

Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Sport
sport
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy
tvCall the Midwife Christmas Special
Sport
Laura Trott and Jason Kenny are preparing for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow
sport
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth with Tess Daly in the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special
tvLouis Smith wins with 'Jingle Bells' quickstep on Strictly Come Dancing's Christmas Special
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

    £20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

    Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

    £24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

    Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

    Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

    Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there