Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Christmas Themed Beers

Continuing my odyssey of beer exploration,this week I try to embrace the joys of Christmas…

generic stouty beer pic
Each year I notice Aldi gets in special Christmas themed beers, and last year I bought one because it would count towards my distinct beers challenge. Generally though, I found the way the beer industry tries to tailor itself to different holidays or events… a bit annoying. Especially Christmas though. In the same way that the media seems to think the only music you want to listen to at Christmas are 20 Christmas themed hits from the past and things that involve chimes, jingling sounds and choirs of children, and restaurants think that you want turkey and things with cranberry sauce, the alcoholic drinks industry seems to think you want irish cream (which, frankly, you do), gluhwein (which, should be banned), port (likewise), eggnog (which, excuse me North America, is minging) and beer that tastes a bit spicy because that represents the flavour of Christmas pudding.

Look, can we have a rule here? If you don’t want it at any point during the rest of the year, you can’t have it at Christmas because, clearly it ain’t so special. Here are a few examples to illustrate this.

Mince pies. I like mince pies, but you can only get them at Christmas. Why? I’ll tell you why: would you buy them at any other time of the year? No, because there’s only so many you can eat, and you eat both of those at Cristmas. So we don’t need em.

Turkey. Look, turkey’s just a massive, dry, tasteless chicken. I get that you tend to have more people to feed at Christmas so you need something bigger, but can I suggest goose instead?

Christmas pudding. What is this even for? Let’s pour a shitload of brandy on to a cake and set it on fire! Howabout, let’s drink the brandy and get a cake in that peple actually like? And if you like fire: cigars.

Gluhwein. Hot alcoholic cordial. Are you shitting me?

Band Aid. I just don’t know how I feel about this anymore, except I have an instinctive aversion to it.

Walnuts in shells. Why do people want to crack their own nuts at Christmas?

Christmas trees. Taking up space, presenting a fire hazard.

Works dos. I’ve covered these in an earlier post, and I can’t remember what I said about them. I might’ve been trying to be positive that day, but it’s more llkely I was sarcastic and disparaging. So I’m just going to say, if no one wants to go out with everyone they work with on a regular basis, it’s inhumane to make them do it in a shit bar or restaurant where a number of the previously mentioned examples are likely to be present and a bunch of other works are on dos at the same time.

TV Christmas specials. I know you can’t show Christmas specials at any other time of the year, but really: they’re all the same. Maybe if I was a kid, wall to wall Christmas themed TV would ramp up my excitement even further, but I’m not. I’m an adult. I don’t need to see popular chat show hosts and comedy characters dressed as Father Christmas. I don’t need to know anything about elves (unless it stars the delightful Will Ferrell), angels (unless it’s It’s a Wonderful Life), reindeer, or ghosts of Christmas past, present or twatting future. You get me?

Which brings me back… to Christmas themed beer. I would normally avoid these like anything with Piers Morgan in it (unless it was Piers Morgan being dunked repeatedly in a bowl of shit), but as I said, the distinct beers challenge (coupled with the arrival of Christmas) convinced me to just try all the Christmas beers. In the same way that I decided to read one of Piers Morgan’s books just to confirm how much of a bellend he is, I decided to try all the Christmas themed beers I could find to confirm it’s pointless. Let’s see shall we, what they’re like and whether there are any thematic similarities?

As I got started on this, it actually turned out that there weren’t actually that many Christmas themed beers, though I did come across a lot of things that were termed Winter Ales. I decided to look up what this was, and found that it tends to refer to things like stouts and porters because they often aren’t available in summer. It may be true that they aren’t always available in the summer, but as we’ll see, a lot of the winter ales I came across weren’t actually stouts or porters. Similarly, I don’t see all that much that can be deemed wintry about some of these ales. But nevertheless, a-delvin’ we will go. [it turns out that plenty of stouts and porters are available in the summer months. A look at the bottles available at Urmston’s Prairie SchoonerTap House on the 5th of June revealed there were no less than 10 porters or stouts in stock. It also turns out that the existence of winter ales stems more from the kind of beers that could be brewed in winter – you know, like in the old days – rather than any thematic intentions.]

I bought the rest of the Christmas themed ales that were available from Aldi and a few that I could find in Tesco. Asda didn’t have any Christmas themed beers at all, which I found very odd. I did pick up some winter ales in Sainsburys, and elsewhere, I tried to buy Christmassy or winter ales whenever I went to the pub – which is quite a lot in December for the various band Christmas dos, golf Christmas dos, work Christmas dos…

First was Wychwood’s Bah Humbug which has 5 ABVs (though the website claims there are only 4.3) and features a cartoon impression of Scrooge on the label in the inimitable Wychwood goblin style. I’m quite a big fan of the Hobgoblin – probably their most famous product – and I can see I’ve given Bah Humbug with its spicy fruit flavours 3 stars. That’s not bad – in fact I have to admit I rather enjoyed it.

I see Wychwood actually do a whole host of seasonal ales – one for each month. I don’t know whether to be moderately impressed or incredibly annoyed about that. I’ll decide later. It is later; I have decided now that I like it, as it means there are more distinct beers to look out for.

Next was St Peter’s Christmas Ale, which comes in a snazzy flask with a label that depicts a typical cottagey British winter scene. It’s a hearty 7% and is described as smooth, fruity and full-bodied; the perfect companion for Christmas savouries, sweets and snacks.  I scored it an average 3 out of 5.

I see St Peter’s also have a slightly extended range of seasonal beers, including a winter one and they all come in that impossibly cool flask.

Jenning’s Redbreast contains four and a half ABVs and rather than showing a lady’s sunburnt bosom on the label, comes adorned with the slightly more predictable image of a robin in a hat and scarf, whistling out a few notes. This is Jenning’s’ December release, the January one being Cockle Warmer, which I expect I’ll get to shortly. I scored the Redbreast another average 3.

On entering Yule Love It! Into Untappd, I was surprised to find three other beers going by that name. That suggests a dearth of imagination, doesn’t it? Nevetheless, this one is by Thwaites Brewery and clocks up a stilted 4% ABV. It is described simply as an amber Christmas ale and I can’t really add anything to that, other than that I actually scored this an extra half a star on the others, making it the best so far. You might take that with a pinch of salt though, as other Untappd members thought it had a generic hoppy taste with a hint of water or that it was tasteless. I thought the hoppyness was actually an improvement on the blandness of all the other Christmas themed ales I’d tried so far. As for a hint of water… all beers contain that – usually up to around 95%.

Hardys & Hansons Rocking Rudolph notches 4.2 ABVs and is part of Greene King’s seasonal ale range. A cartoon reindeer with an Elvis wig and a guitar (hilarious), potentially bursting out of a snowglobe decorates this one… and it’s back down to 3 stars because extra points are not awarded for the number of components an image possesses.

Old Miserable Git, another by Thwaites is the second beer in our list to reference those of us who might have a slightly grumpier reaction to Christmas. That doesn’t mean I appreciate it anymore than the others – in fact, I don’t. It’s another 3 stars. It’s 4.1% and is presented with a cartoon image of a cigar chewing grouch.

Christmas Plum Pudding from JW Lees is quite different. It’s 4.8% and described by the brewer as “Christmas in a glass”. It sure is fruity and smooth and I have to say a little odd tasting. It went down quite easily though (as in fact did all the pints I had on the evening I consumed this one), and I was enjoying it by the end. I only gave it a 3 though.

With Sainsburys Taste The Difference Celebration Ale by Black Sheep (6% ABV), the supermarket giant has adopted branding that belies its own brand identity. In fact, through a set of uninteresting circumstances I came into possession of two more Taste the Difference offerings in the form of the equally well branded American Pale Ale and Tap Room IPA(both by Genesee Brewing Company). I’m not sure how I feel about this since I tend to avoid own brands wherever possible (unless I’m in the market for cheap spirits), but you’ve got to give them credit for sourcing these products from reputable brewers. That they make no secret of who the brewer is encourages one to buy, but also to feel cheated when one realises one has paid full price for a supermarket own brand… of sorts – which wouldn’t be a problem if the products were any good, but these aren’t. While I should only be concerning myself with the product that is described as “a rich, dark winter warmer” on its label, it’s worth mentioning that I scored all three a derisory 2 stars out of 5. The American Pale Ale in particular I remember recoiling in horror at a weak and toiletty aftertaste.


Out of all of the beers listed above,  only the Celebration Ale proclaimed itself a stout or porter (stout, to be precise). I did drink one or two of that ilk over the period, but they weren’t labelled Christmas or Winter ale, so I don’t think you can count them.

What have we learned then? Well, you can correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I can see, as long as it is an ale and not a lager, there’s nothing to stop something from being classed as a winter or Christmas-themed ale. As long as you can convince people it is rich, spicy or warming and you stick a wintry scene on the label or call it a comical wintry name, you’re all right. If you want a more informative, fact-laden account than I can [be bothered to] give you, try this link. The thing is, despite the traditional origins of winter ale and the seasonal nature of what is called Winter Ale, it seems to me that you can buy similar products all year round – these days at least. Now that I’ve done my initial research, I suppose it’s time to put that to the test – at least it will be when it ain’t winter no’ mo’. [I can confirm that I did manage to buy a winter ale in July, Dunham Massey’s Winter Warmer, though I don’t remember where I got it from.]

As ever, I’m learning as I go along, and hopefully you’re having a nice time and can say you’re learning with me. Sure, you could go to someone who already knows all about it, but how much fun would that be? Exactly. No fun at all.

This then, marks my last post of the year. I hope you’ve had fun joining me on my various adventures. I’ll be back in the new year as ever, returning with a run down of my favourite three spirits from 2015. In the meantime, if you need something to read, I’m sure there are plenty of backposts you haven’t read. I promise though, that there will be plenty more to read about in the new year. Till then, have a great Christmas.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Distinct Beers Challenge Climax, Results and Analysis

sorry that these are just photos of a computer screen, but I don't know what I'm doing
Thursday 12 November 2015 was to be the final night of competition in the year long Distinct Beers Challenge,which you could have been following on Twitter at #DistinctBeersChallenge. I had one beer left in my fridge after the pub crawl, and had that on the Sunday during dinner preparation. That had left me just 2 beers behind the leader, Pablo. His prodigious distinct beer drinking had left him on the verge of a well-deserved victory, but I wasn’t just going to stand by make it easy. I waited until Wednesday lunchtime at work, and nipped down the local Lidl to see if they had anything in, coming away with four very reasonably priced distinct beers.

One had been a gamble – Hatherwood’s Golden Goose was definitely in a different bottle, but was it the same beer? When I was able to check, (I could get no data connectivity in Lidl itself), I found that this new bottling was no. 4, so it was indeed a distinct beer. Curiously though, on searching the app again, that beer has mysteriously disappeared from the app. I’ve raised query with them, so it will be interesting to see what happens. Back to the story.

I resolved to drink two beers that evening, see where things were after that, and visit the nearby big Asda the following lunchtime to stock up on ammo for one last assault.

As I kept an eye on the app that evening, I saw that Pablo was having a beer too. With Mrs Cake’s encouragement, I decided to have three instead of two, just in case. I would be looking after our little girl on my own on the Thursday, so it might be difficult to keep opening and pouring beers while simultaneously trying to entertain, feed, change and console a wriggling, mewling 16 week old, should the contest go right down to the wire.

Incidentally, that third happened to be Mrs Cake’s Samuel Smith Imperial Stout that she’d been saving. I opened it by accident, mistaking it for one of mine, and therefore preserving 2 of my Lidl stash for the next evening.

Thursday came and I saw that Pablo had snuck another beer under the radar on the previous night. That left me one behind going into the final evening. It all depended on what Pablo and I would do.
I proceeded with my plan. The trip to Asda proved fruitful; I found the only four beers I hadn’t had before and looked forward to striding to victory.

I launched into it as soon as I got home with a Praga Premium Pils from Lidl, pausing just to greet the family and pull over-excited faces at our little girl, then left a small gap until after dinner before continuing with Bishops Finger. I couldn’t really believe I hadn’t logged that one before, but obviously it had slipped through the net as it isn’t really of a style I’d seek out generally.

I saw that Pablo hadn’t logged anything yet, so I took another break while I tried to feed our offspring. Mrs Cake’s plans had been cancelled anyway, so there were no impediments to doing what was necessary – unless Pablo absolutely caned it and I hadn’t got enough beers in.

Next up was Warka, and finally Goose Island Honker’s Ale. That left me two beers ahead, with two hours until midnight and two beers in the fridge, in reserve. Pablo still hadn’t registered anything. I kept checking, and was going to wait right up to the moments before midnight, just in case Pablo was using sneaky tactics – such as drinking but not logging until the last moment, so that I wouldn’t be able to match him. I didn’t really think Pablo would be as sneaky as that though.

Then I started thinking, what if Pablo thought the competition ended last night? I’m going to have to check as I don’t want to declare myself the winner and turn out to be mistaken… or give anyone any excuses…

I scrolled down my Facebook timeline to a year ago when the challenge had first been issued and read that the deadline would be 2317 on 12 November 2015. That would mean the competition would be over 43 minutes sooner than I had thought.  So I started to worry that I might have told people during the pub crawl that the deadline was midnight. Ultimately of course, the date stated in the original post would be law, but I didn’t want any controversy or cause for dissent.

23:17 came and went and I was tired, so I decided not to wait up until midnight, figuring the two beer lead was probably enough. It was; I checked first thing when I woke up the following morning. First job at work that day would be to complete the graph, announce the news and do a little bit of analysis.

who actually drank the most distinct beers in the year?
I would just like to point out that, even though I won the overall challenge by not letting anyone exceed my distinct beers total, both Pablo and Dave actually drank more distinct beers than me during the year - Dave just by 8, but Pablo by an impressive... 20, 30, 40...56. Overall though, I still had two more beers than Pablo.

Now it was over, it all seemed a bit of an anti-climax, though I also felt a gaping hole in my life. What would we do now, without an all-consuming, alcohol-fueled competition? Well, let’s just cool our boots a little bit there. I’m sure we’ll think of something, and there’s a lot of analysis to do first.

What have we learned?

Let’s do this bullet point style, like it’s a presentation.

    Lidl beers
  • There are loads of different beer brands and styles, but it is still very difficult (and expensive) to keep finding new ones. In spite of that, I’ve found a new enthusiasm, if not appreciation for beer, and that is a good thing – as proven by how I was almost as excited to receive 6 beers from my sister as an early Christmas present this year as I would have been to receive a bottle of whisky.
  • Garden centres and stately homes are good places to find unsual local craft ales.
  • Some beers specify that they be stored upright for a reason.
  • Lidl is also a good place to pick up distinct beers– they seem to rotate stock quite often and cover a few varieties. Even if the range isn’t particularly wide, it is cheap.
  • If you’re going to try as many beers as possible, you’d better be prepared to splash some cash. And get around a bit.
  • Most beer is pretty average but if you like beer, that’s ok.
  • It is ok to ignore recommended serving temperatures. Just have it all cold.
  • Have a strategy for recording beers if you have no data connectivity – such as using the note  function on your phone. Be aware though, that there are often numerous beers with the same name so you’ll need to note the brewery and sometimes other details to be sure you’re getting the right one.
garden centre beers

In all honesty, I’m struggling to think of anything else we’ve learned. Let’s reduce this to quantitative data, and see if that tells us anything.

I drank 372 distinct beers between 23:17 on 12 November 2014 and the same time on 12 November 2015. 372 beers from 28 different countries, and from every continent except Antarctica, comprising 83 different styles –as recognised by Untappd.

graph showing frequency of scores attained by beers
As you might know, you have the chance to score each beer out of 5, so I’ve plotted the various scores on a graph. As you can see, an average 3 out of 5 is the most popular rating, while ‘above average’ scores of 3.5 and 4 out of five were more common than ‘below average’ 2 or 2.5 out of 5. That pretty much goes to prove that, in general, beer is ok, but, slightly better than that, I like beer more than I don’t like it.

What do the stats tell me about which kinds of beer I like?

If you’d asked me what kinds of beers I like before, I would have listed IPAs, wheat beers and red ales primarily. My least favourite would probably be bitter, fruit beers and winter ales. I have a post on winter ales coming up (hopefully next week), but in the mean time, let’s take a look at the data on those aforementioned kinds of ales and see if we can conclude anything.


I recorded 6 distinct IPA styles and 57 different IPAs in all. That means 15% of the distinct beers I drank were IPAs. On average they do seem to score better than beer in general – IPAs scoring an average of 3.34 out of 5 against the all beer average of 3.14. There are still some distinctly uninspiring examples among IPAs though – RtwoDtwo’s Steam Hopper IPA scored only 1, while no one scored full marks. There were more 4.5s than usual though.

Red Ales

I didn’t generally come across as many of these as I would have liked – only 11 in total. They scored pretty well, RtwoDtwo’s Best Red being the exception with 2 out of 5, while everyone else scored between 3 and 4. There were no scores above 4.


Only 8 of my beers were wheat beers, and again that reflects a lack of availability, as I would have chosen it more often, given the opportunity. Once again, the scores were good, but not great.


Bitter was well represented, and again, that was because of availability, rather than any desire on my part to drink bitter. There are just so many pubs in the UK where if you want something you haven’t tried before, it’s going to be bitter. The same goes for a lot of the stock in supermarkets. I drank 37 different bitters and on average they scored a pretty low 2.92 – nothing scoring more than 4 out of 5.

Fruit beers

I managed to deliberately avoid these for the most part, clocking up only one, JW Lees and Co’s Christmas Plum Pudding. I think you’ll be reading a little more about that one next week. In general I don’t see the point in fruit beers… manly and girly at the same time… it’s just confusing. Like ladyboys.

Winter ales

This genre was a little better represented because of research I was doing for a post (coming next week) about winter and Christmas themed ales. Again, my general dislike (hoping I’m not ruining next week’s post too much) came out with only one of the 11 beers scoring 4 out of 5 (take a bow, Tweed Brewing Co’s Winter Tweed).

Winners and Losers

Aside from me (who was the winner) and everyone else (who lost), there is the question of which beers (and breweries) deserve the overall praise or derision. Let’s start with the breweries.

As you can imagine, I came to seek out certain breweries over the course of the year, so some have a better chance of being represented here than others. Worthy of particular praise are Thornbridge, Cloudwater, Staffordshire Brewery and Badger Ales. Some of these had lower scoring beers as well as high, but I hardly think they can be held responsible for my personal tastes with regard to styles.

In that spirit, I’m not going to dwell on the breweries whose wares I sampled only once or twice, since it is as likely that I tried varieties that weren’t to my personal taste, as much as that it was bad beer.

In terms of individual beers then, scoring 4.5 out of 5 and worthy of great praise are each of the following:

Caesar Augustus IPL by Williams Brothers
Wild Swan, Jaipur X and Bear State, all by Thornbridge
Hairy Potter by Staffordshire Brewery
Workie Ticket by Mordue Brewery
Hop ‘n’ Roll by Manerba Brewery
Carrie by Kaapse Brouwers
IPA (Summer 2015) and DIPA, both by Cloudwater.

That leaves only one beer to mention, one you could call the overall winning beer of the whole year because it is the only one that scored 5 out of 5. I don’t know whether I’d enjoy it that much again, but I can remember even now, sitting out in the garden on one of the year’s hot days drinking Unmistakably Bill’s pale ale by Caledonian Brewing Company.

Congratulations and thanks to all the beers that have made my year that much tastier.

I will, just for the sake of balance, shame the 5 beers that scored only 1 out of 5:

Steam Hopper IPA by RtwoDtwo
Honey Porter by St Peter’s Brewey Co.
Boddingtons Bitter by Boddingtons
Dead Crow Rum Flavoured Beer by Beverage Brands
Golden Glory by Badger Ales

You guys, maybe think about doing better (not you, Badger Ales, I’ve been enjoying most of your other output), or maybe put it down to your beer not being to my personal taste. Just take it on board. It’s up to you.


Does that mean this whole experiment was worthwhile? Well, I’m just going to say yes. It was fun and got the banter flowing between those of us who took part. I was probably going to drink a certain amount of beer anyway, though it is hard to say whether I ultimately drank more than I would have done. Given that I was going to slow down before the competition started, I probably did end up drinking more beer than otherwise.

So what now? We definitely need a new competition to fill the gap, but now that the pressure’s off, how will our drinking habits change? I’m still determined to try different beers as much as possible. I quite like that I’ve had all the beers in most places I go. It means I can say to myself, I’ll only buy beer today if there’s some I haven’t had already. It will be nice though, to not feel compelled to go and buy beer when I’m skint and don’t really want to.


Before I leave you then, let me just finish by saying that we have now hit upon a new contest – the Christmas Beers Challenge. And you can read about that… soon.

I’ll be back next week with  a final instalment of what I’m going to call the Distinct Beers Trilogy, in which I’ll be discussing the Christmas themed beers and winter ales that went some way towards inspiring the aforementioned Christmas Beers Challenge. And just in time for Christmas too. So… see you then.