With Christmas just a day away, the vexed question of what beers to get in to enjoy over the Christmas period, once again raises its head. Or does it, as for the last few years I’ve largely given up on stocking up with certain favourites and instead have just gone with the flow.
That doesn’t mean I have a dry, beer less Christmas – that would be a disaster, but what I have tended to do is buy whatever is on offer at my local supermarkets; primarily Tesco, Waitrose and Asda, as Sainsbury’s seem to have given up on discounting or special offers. That way I can build up a reasonable stock of something drinkable and enjoyable, without breaking the bank.
I ensure that my festive season stock always includes personal favourites, such as Pilsner Urquell, Fuller’s Porter, 1845 and St Austell Proper Job. This Christmas I have built up quite a stock of cans from Vocation Brewery – Pride & Joy plus Life & Death. Last month I wrote about the promotion Tesco have been running on these beers
I have my father to thank for the long-standing tradition of Christmas beers within the Bailey household as, even though he was never much of a drinker, and certainly not a beer drinker, my dad was not averse to getting a few beers in for us to enjoy over the festive season.
I remember badgering him to get in some tins of Sainsbury’s Bitter; after I discovered it was brewed by Ruddles. A year or so later, I persuaded him to go for the real thing, in the form of Ruddles County – then available in those squat-shaped, stumpy bottles, with the ring-pull caps.
The Ruddles fascination was probably during my university years, whilst I was home with my parents, for the Christmas break. Those home visits were interspersed with sessions down at the Honest Miller - the local pub in the village, where copious pints of locally-brewed Fremlin's Bitter were enjoyed.A few years later, after graduating, and after buying my first house, a two-up and two-down terraced cottage in Maidstone, I took what was the next step in home drinking, which was treating myself to a polypin of real ale, from a local brewery.
I’d become involved with the local CAMRA branch and ended up copying what one or two of the more senior members were doing. That was forty years ago, when I was approaching my mid-twenties, and some of those “senior” members were probably younger than I am now, but perception is everything when you’re young, and anyone over 40 was positively ancient in my book!
My polypins were mainly sourced from Harvey’s, although over the next few years I tried beer from several other breweries, including the Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewery, whose equipment, and premises, were later acquired by Larkin’s.
The advantage of polypins is the beer is contained in a flexible container, inside the sturdy cardboard outer box, and the liner slowly collapses as the beer is drawn off. Because the beer does not come into contact with oxygen in the air, the beer will last upwards of two weeks, but inevitably it will start losing condition.
I eventually gave up on polypins and moved on to bottles as, in my experience, they're a much better bet. Not only do they remain fresh until they are opened, but they can provide a lot more variety. And with so much good food and interesting flavours available over the Christmas period, variety is what's required.
My days of buying draught beer in bulk seemed over until last week. I’d popped into the "Causeway Stores," close to my work, to buy a few more stamps from the Post Office, and to post a card to my sister in America. Stacked in a corner, close to the counter, were several 5 litre mini-casks.
Now many micro, and not so micro breweries offer beer in these containers, not just at Christmas, but all year round. These ones were from Larkin’s who brew a few miles away in Chiddingstone village. I wasn’t aware that their beers were available in these containers, so I had a quick look at what was on offer, and found most were filled with Larkin’s Traditional, which is the brewery’s weakest, but most popular beer.
I noticed one contained the brewery's much more satisfying Best Bitter, but there weren’t any Porters lurking amongst the stack. After buying my stamps, I enquired as to whether Porter might be available, and discovered that whilst the shop had none in stock, they could get the brewery to drop one down for me. I duly placed my order and collected my mini-cask after work yesterday. At £22, it was a real bargain and works out at just £2.75 a pint, assuming the cask contains 8 pints.
I set it up in the summerhouse yesterday evening, and have just tapped and poured myself a pint. The beer is still a little hazy, but that doesn’t’ matter in a dark beer. It was well-conditioned – as Larkin’s beers normally are, but I will probably leave it another day or so, before drawing off any more.
My only previous experience of beer in mini-casks, was one I brought back from a pre-Christmas trip to Bamberg, twelve eleven years ago. It was a cask of Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, the city’s legendary “Smoke beer,” and very nice it was too; certainly for the first two or three days.
The beer then slowly began to go downhill as the level of liquid in the container gradually went down. As might be expected, the amount of condition in the beer (the level of dissolved CO2), was the first thing to decline, followed slowly by a deterioration in the taste of the beer.
Lesson learned, so I will do my best to consume the contents as quickly as possible. With a beer as good as Larkin’s Porter, that shouldn’t be difficult, and as I was moaning just the other week about not having come across this beer locally this year, I’ve now got ample opportunity to get stuck in and start enjoying it.