Sophie Atherton: Festive beers only serve to disappoint

By Sophie Atherton

- Last updated on GMT

Sophie Atherton: Festive beers only serve to disappoint

Related tags Beers Christmas

Beer somellier, Sophie Atherton, looks at why most festive beers prove to be absolute turkeys.

I don’t know whether it’s my age, but the older I get the more annoyed I am by the modern idea of Christmas. I’m not going to pretend it was all satsumas and a few nuts in a stocking when I was growing up, but it wasn’t the rabid consumer fest we have now.

What’s all that got to do with pubs? It relates to the role of the pub in my Christmases past. Christmas Eve was just about the biggest day in my pub-going year, next to it’s twin pillar New Year’s Eve. It meant going out early and staying late, putting on a nice outfit, kisses under the mistletoe and that every regular – all my friends basically – would be there. You looked forward to it for weeks in advance and it was never a let down.

One thing it didn’t feature was Christmas-themed beers. Much as with the allegedly obligatory shopping frenzy we’re nowadays encouraged to be part of, the sort of beers trotted out at this time of year are another faux-festive tradition we can do without.

What’s my beef? With very few exceptions, they are all turkeys – and simply sticking them on the bar and hoping for the best is a wasted opportunity to do something special, which actively draws people to the pub.

Instead of an air of anticipation and joy at special ales only available at this time of year, we get the beer equivalent of a parade of poorly dressed, thin, unconvincing Santas. Lame tinselled pumpclips, or worse, those ones with flashing lights, pictures of Rudolph, cartoon images of Santa, robins and holly. Obvious names at best; at worst, the sort of crude puns that ought not to be on beer at any time of the year. Not only that, but there is little honestly Christmassy about them. They don’t even taste as good as beers at any other time of the year. They usually taste like watery imitations of best bitter. I rarely cry into my pint but if someone bought me one of these travesties, I would.

Before the E-beer-neezer Scrooge accusations begin, I’ll tell you what I drink instead. Any good non-Christmas beer that feels like it was made for winter. The ones that warm and lift the spirits. Things like Adnams Broadside or old ale, beers with Christmas cake or pudding flavours; or lighter coloured beers with tangy orange marmalade hops, perhaps a good cask stout or a black IPA. If I can get these in the pub I’m happy but I’d be happier – and pubs could make more of beer in the festive season – if it became the time of year when everyone knew there would be something special to drink. It’s the perfect opportunity to serve stronger beers, in smaller measures and snifter glasses, perhaps after a Christmas meal or at the end of the night. Beers worthy of toasting the season; beers that attract attention and encourage custom. Invest a little time and effort in stocking some special bottles, promote and shout about it and people will beat a path to your door because the beer is heavenly and because you’re offering them something different.

My top tips? Tring Brewery Death or Glory: serve with a British cheese board; Schneider Weisse Aventinus Eisbock: very strong with flavours akin to Christmas pudding; Lacon’s Audit Ale is a great sharing bottle with boozy, caramelised sugar and dark fruity notes capable of charming wine and spirits fans; or try Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, a stunning marriage of chocolate and whiskey flavours that’s only released once a year in late November.

It may not be very British but there’s nothing wrong with a little Christmas up-selling around great beer. Give it a go and, in future, your customers will hear these beers cry out, “It’s Chriiiiiiiiiiisttttttmaaaaas!” Noddy Holder style. They’ll also think of you at other times of year because you gave them a special Christmas.

There are other beers that are worthy of the festive season, of course. There are even one or two genuinely seasonal beers made with spruce needles (sounds revolting but adds flavour in the same way hops do). What I’m getting at is, if the average punter is as unconvinced by faux-festive brews as I am, there are other ways to make the most of beer at Christmas. Get it right and your pub will be firmly in the minds of customers as a place to go once the coming year rolls round too.

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