Origin: Lewes, East Sussex, England
The end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 found me tasting an unusually large number of British cask ales as I worked my way round potential places to drink for my London guide. Normally, to preserve as clear a head as I could when visiting up to 21 pubs in one day, I’d pick something low gravity and limit myself to a few sips. I made a point of paying a special visit even to places I already knew very well, just to make sure I had all the information I needed for the book, including the famous White Horse in Parsons Green SW6, where I found myself early in January. When I saw the cask version of Harvey’s classic seasonal strong ale on the bar, I gladly made an exception to my usual rule, buying a half and drinking the lot.
The beer, which is also available all year round in a filtered, bottled version, is described by the brewery as a barley wine which recalls 18th and early 19th century stock ales of the sort that were laid down in better off households. I suspect the recipe has undergone a certain amount of modernisation, but it’s still a traditional treat.
Christmas Ale is a deep burgundy colour, with a light bubbly head. The aroma is relatively restrained, with pronounced fruity and toasty malt notes. A rich, sweet and oily but all too drinkable palate has cherry fruit, with light wood hints and emerging almond flavours. A tasty, nutty and fruity finish is long and gently warming with drying woody vanilla flavours and lightly tangy hop resins. The beer is actually relatively heavily hopped, but at such a high strength and with good residual sweetness, the bitterness is balanced out.
I also have a tasting note from a bottle I tried a few years back, which I found had a creamy off-white head, a cakey vine fruit aroma with hints of angelica, a full and slightly treacly and vinous palate with some light fruit, plum and coffee, and a little peppery dryness, orange peel and mincemeat in the finish. I suspect the relatively higher carbonation in the bottle offsets the sweetness and brings out a little more of the hops.
The bottled version was good, but the draught was stunning, and well worth keeping an eye out for at the right time of year.