This month, the session is hosted by my good friend, Steve Lamond who writes BeersI'veKnown. For the season that's in it, we are simply to put ourselves around an imaginary fire with you the audience sitting around the writer and listening to beery yarns. Tales about anything, as long as they involve beer. It wasn't specified whether these tales should be true or not, or even something that happened to the person telling them but in this case, it's true.
I remember being young, coming up to Christmas. I was a child of the 80's and things seemed simpler in those days. Ireland was a poor country and we were poor ourselves. My father was working off a debt due to a failed business in those years but I don't recall whether that business was still around at the time I'm thinking of or if it had already gone bust. In those days, you did everything yourself. You would never for instance go out and buy a Christmas pudding from a shop, you made it yourself. I would say I was about 8 years old when I was big enough to take an interest in what was going on in the kitchen. My mother used to make the Christmas pudding and I helped her out. You might wonder why an 8 year old boy would want to help in the kitchen? The answer is simplicity itself. I got to lick all the utensils of the cake mixtures. Anyway, your average Christmas pudding, and let me pause here for a moment and explain a Christmas pudding to my American readers.
A Christmas pudding is basically a fruitcake but there's a lot more to it. It's soaked in alcohol and it ages over time. It is often set alight before eating if the alcohol content allows. It is served hot and usually covered in something like custard or cream or even ice cream. My personal favourite is brandy butter but I do love melting ice cream too.
So moving on, your average Christmas pudding contains alcohol in some form. Often it's brandy or whiskey but it can be anything really. In my family, and again, in those days you used the family recipe. There was no internet to look up a recipe and using a cook book was just cheating anyway. My mother used the recipe her mother used and her mother before that. Ours called for stout as the alcohol of choice. I like to think this added some of the roast coffee flavours you get with stout. The stout we used was of course Guinness. This would have been my first introduction to beer because I had to taste everything that went in to the pudding. In fact, I still taste everything. I will try almost anything once. I'll often try things a few times even if I don't immediately like something. Celery is the only thing I absolutely detest to point that I consider it evil and has no place in food. I'm digressing again. So my first beer was bottled Guinness when I was about 8 years old. I didn't like it of course, I was 8 years old but the following year and the year after that I kept trying it until at some point I didn't dislike it so much. Then it was pretty much the 90's and people bought their Christmas puddings in the supermarket and innocence was lost.
How things have changed, I no longer dislike Guinness, I rather like it in fact. My tastes have changed to the point where Guinness, once a beer that had too much flavour for my 8 year old palate to comprehend is now considered bland. Whether that's because I've changed or the beer I can't say for certain but I now crave lots of flavour in my beer.
That brings me up to Shepherd Neame's Christmas Ale, something that arrived unexpectedly in the mail. I have been on their mailing list for years but this is the first beer that actually arrived. The first thing I can say is that I am very glad to see it in a brown bottle. Secondly, it looks magnificent with a lovely crystal clear ruby colour that just reminds me of Christmas. In fact, I was reminded of a Christmas tree bauble. There's a large frothy off white head with generous lacing. I took a whiff and got toffee and dark fruits with alcohol or to put it anther way, Christmas pudding. I was slightly let down when I tasted it though. Earthy hops and dried fruit along with warming alcohol were the highlights but it was let down by being a little too carbonated for my liking, especially for a winter warmer. I also found it a little dull, I like my winter warmers to have a little more punch to them. As I said earlier, Guinness is a great beer but I just find it lacking in flavour these days. I imagine a lot of people will truly enjoy this beer and indeed I enjoyed it myself. I would just like to see a little bit more complexity and a little less fizz but that's just me and most will love it as is. It is a beautiful looking beer though.