Name – Christmas Ale
Brewer – Shepherd Neame
Classification – Strong 'Seasonal' Ale... (Read on for 'clarification')
Strength – 7.0% ABV
Verdict - At A Glance
On the eye – Sumptuous deep chestnut. Unashamedly traditional. (But appearances can deceive...)
On the nose – Fruit cake and ginger biscuit. (Fragrances can also be deceptive...)
On the tongue – A genuine surprise. Light bodied, vividly hopped, complex, dynamic and really rather wonderful. (Taste never lies.)
On the subject – Well, I think you'd better just read on for this one...
On the market – Considering Shepherd Neame's usual coverage, and considering the time of year, I'd say just close your eyes, make a wish, and it will be there.
On the whole – 8.5/10
On the whole – 8.5/10
Well, I was steadfastly determined not to review any 'Christmas' beers whatsoever this year until those insolent scoundrels at Shepherd Neame forced me into a corner by sending me a free one.
Don't you just hate it when that happens?
The simple reason why I'd (briefly) intended to avoid so-called festive beers is because of the quite baffling effect 'Yuletide' seems to have on the entire brewing industry. By and large, breweries tend to use this time of year as an opportunity to toss away the tremendous levels of respect which they've carefully generated throughout the previous 11 months by handing over responsibility for their Christmas campaign to the nearest newborn gibbon.
As an inevitable result of this handover, the end of year market becomes flooded with all manner of daftly-named, garishly-labelled bottles, most of which are filled with beers that the head brewers (who have also been temporarily replaced by infant gibbons) know will hardly be consumed after December 25th, so they really ought not to be the finest ales their company will ever produce.
This, of course, is a very cynical view and not at all an accurate representation of what truly goes on.
Whatever the realities, I just tend not to get all that excited about the beers which show up at this time of year. So it was with an air of quiet suspicion that I cracked the lid on today's beer.
Very shortly afterwards, however, my spirits began to rise.
When I say 'rise', I mean really quite significantly, and I began to believe that the suspicions I've recently been harbouring about 'Britain's Oldest Brewery' might actually be correct.
In short, I think something's happening at Shepherd Neame.
I think changes, subtle at first but increasingly evident lately, have been taking place. And if this beer alone is anything to go by – I'd say those changes are enormously positive ones.
This brewery's aforementioned claim to be 'Britain's Oldest' is one for the lawyers and historians to quibble over, but there's little doubt that these guys have been around for a heck of a long time, and they've been based all along in the very heart of the UK's very own 'Hop Mecca', more commonly known as Kent.
Tradition, then, is the byword here. And there's little doubt that Shepherd Neame continue to brew some of the most traditional feeling English ales around.
But I'll say it again, I reckon something's been happening at this brewery.
Some of their recent releases have had a markedly different feel to them. Their 'Double Stout' and 'India Pale Ale' have a very nice 'retro chic' look to them, and by all accounts they taste a lot more 'exciting' and 'interesting' than plenty of recent offerings from all the other big name firms.
This is great news this brewery, as I firmly believe the best chance the big players have of maintaining their dominant market position is to wake up – and fast – to what's been going on lately outside their castle walls.
But it's also great news for us, because brews like Christmas Ale are heralding some significant new levels of innovation and creativity, whilst also keeping the ghosts of Xmas beers past firmly very firmly at bay.
I kid you not, today's beer makes for an unspeakably gratifying experience. It's robust, but it's equally zesty and packed with vitality. It's bold, but it's equally delicate and playful. It's big, but it ain't at all overbearing – and where they hiding all 7.0% of that ABV is anyone's guess.
Lightly toasted nut and granary loaf malts stand firmly but gracefully at the base, holding aloft a dynamic swirling mass of crisp citrus, deliciously nuanced herbs, a ton of fruity twangs from the likes of apricot and pear – and a finely woven tapestry of mild spice which contains absolutely none of that bullish intensity which can needlessly ruin (for me at least) so many Christmas themed brews. These are beers, after all – not curries!
'Faversham's finest' are quite simply rewriting the Yuletide rules, and I couldn't be happier about it. There's no 'comedy' festive title here, the name couldn't possibly be less gimmicky. There's no whacky recipe mindful of its own very short shelf-life, just delicious well-balanced beer that could be enjoyed all year round. Perhaps most significantly, this is a beer that will (very cleverly) appeal to drinkers on both sides of the evolutionary divide.
The gibbons are back in the zoo.
Shepherd Neame's usual head brewer is definitely back in the building – with a head crammed full of fresh and exciting ideas.
Christmas is most definitely coming.