Regular readers of this blog will be only too aware that I am no fan of Shepherd Neame beers. I will qualify that statement though by saying I am not at all keen on most of their regular offerings. Sheps have been known though to turn out some quite decent bottled beers, which include an IPA and a Stout based on some old recipes found in the archives. They also brew a pretty mean Christmas Ale, but so they should, as they have a long and distinguished history of coming up with something good and warming for the festive season; a tradition which is longer than that of most UK breweries.
I remember Shepherd Neame producing a Christmas Ale back in the early 1970’s. I was still at school back then, but in the sixth form. However, during my time in the lower sixth and for my first two terms in the upper sixth, I wasn’t legally old enough to drink. No-one seemed to bat an eyelid back then, as long as you behaved yourself; which of course we did. Every year Shep’s would make their Christmas Ale available to their tied estate, and of course if my friends and I were feeling brave we would try a bottle. Half pint bottles (275 ml), were pretty much standard measure back then; certainly in the on-trade. But at the time a half pint was sufficient. I’ve no idea how strong the beer was, as there was no legal requirement in those days to declare the strength of most alcoholic drinks, but the beer, which was a well-hopped pale ale, certainly had a kick to it – particularly for a 17 year old not that used to drinking. The beer was packaged with an attractive label showing a group of suitable attired carollers gathered beneath a lantern.
It should be said that whilst the tradition of producing a strong satisfying beer for the festive season dates back a long way, in many cases it had virtually died out. Changing tastes, plus the privations of two world wars had combined to ensure that all but a handful of the country’s breweries had stopped producing any beers which were remotely seasonal, let alone Christmassy. Sheps were thus unusual in this respect, as were Sussex brewers Harvey’s – although I was not aware of the latter brewery at the time.
Shep’s continued brewing their Christmas Ale on an annual basis, although they started to mix things up a bit by introducing fruits and spices, meaning that the recipe of the beer changed from year to year. Rather confusingly in recent years, they also brought out a much lower strength Christmas Ale for sale in discount supermarkets, such as Lidl, but with an ABV of below 4.0% this version wasn’t worth serious consideration.
It was with some pleasure then that I spotted some bottles of the proper strength, full-fat version on sale at a branch of Roy’s of Wroxham of all places. This was on my last visit to Norfolk, back at the beginning of November. I opened the beer appropriately over the Christmas season, and what follows are my impressions of it.
The first thing to note is the strength, which at 7.0% ABV is just right. The beer pours with a nice, bright amber colour, topped with a fluffy head. There are fruit notes in both the aroma and taste, and these are complimented by a spiciness which combines well with the refreshing hop finish. The relatively high alcohol content helps give the beer a smooth and rich mouth-feel, as well as providing a rewarding warming to the drink.
If proof were needed that Shepherd Neame can, if they put their mind to it, produce beers full of character that are well worth seeking out. It is also good to see the company continuing the tradition of brewing a “proper” Christmas Ale; a tradition they upheld right through the dark days of the late 1960’s-early 1970’s – a time when other brewers were abandoning such things in favour of standardisation.
I am regretting now not buying another bottle, but I will certainly be looking out for this beer next year.