I very nearly went ahead and purchased the Ales By Mail beery advent calendar this year. The thing that stopped me was the reason why I avoid any sort of promotion that will send me a selection of beers each month. I hate being surprised. I do like a wide range of beer styles but some beers, especially at Christmas, are undrinkable as far as I'm concerned. Herbs and spices are fine in Christmas cake and puddings but they can destroy a good beer. I also didn't want to risk getting a beer that I had enjoyed or reviewed previously. For those of you interested in reading an excellent review of the Ales By Mail calendar though should follow fellow beer blogger Justin Mason who is doing a superb effort at writing up a review of the beer each day complete with festive jokes. Click here to read from the start.
I then reverted to Plan B. I would order 24 beers from Ales By Mail that I would choose myself and I would then use these as my own personal advent calendar. Then I could write a review each day of each beer which would be personal to me. I wanted a good selection of stouts and porters along with one or two seasonal beers that did not advertise the infiltration of cake ingredients and after a short time I had a basket of lovely sounding beers to enjoy at my leisure.
By the time the beers had arrived however I had decided I could not bother with opening a bottle each day for the whole of December. One reason for this is I like to visit pubs as much as I can up to Christmas and so some days I would not feel like drinking at home. The second reason is that it would overlap with the Beer O'Clock Show 12 Beers of Xmas which I shall be taking part in. This runs from December 20th and I will be opening and reviewing a bottle each day up to New Years Eve. Anyone can take part in this. Visit the Beer O'Clock Show website for details.
So I have settled on Plan C. Drink as many dark beers as I can between now and Christmas and let you know about the dark delights that I have enjoyed (or endured) each week. I began on December 1st with a suitably festive Advent Ale from Surrey brewer Hog's Back. This dark winter ale is rich, warming and malty. There are liquorice and chocolate notes with a bit of treacle toffee on top of a little spiciness. An excellent start to the month.
My first pub visit of the month was a CAMRA social and it was a real bonanza of rich dark delights which included an old favourite. From the local Goldmark Brewery I began with their 3.5% ABV Ebony Mild at the George in the village of Eartham. I have enjoyed this beer a few times from what is a relatively new brewery just down the road from where I live. It is quite a traditional black mild with a nice roast malt character. If you like milds then this will definitely be a beer for you. I am happy to say though that it is no longer my favourite Goldmark beer. Later that evening I was delighted to sample their new Black Lion Porter (4.8% ABV) at the best pub in West Sussex, The Wilkes' Head. They were finishing off the remains from a weekend winter ales festival and this new beer has just been launched and, as with the mild, it is quite traditional. It is very smooth and rich and laced with chocolate and dark fruits with a slight coffee bitterness in the finish. Beautiful.
This dark evening was rounded off in spectacular fashion with a pint of Timothy Taylor Ram Tam (4.3% ABV). This is one of the closest beers from up north that I have come across that resembles a traditional Sussex Old Ale and I have not found this in a pub down here for quite a few years. It is mild with a warming fruity body to it and it was as good as I remembered it.
Back onto the bottled stuff my local Morrisons is now stocking one of my favourite bottled stouts and at an introductory price of £1.89 I could hardly say no. Hop Back Entire Stout (4.5% ABV) is certainly worth getting hold of if you are into the black stuff. I do prefer it in cask but it is beautifully rich and smooth with a good bitter roast malt flavour throughout.
Who remembers Arundel Old Knucker? This rich, strong winter ale has been renamed Sussex Dark and I paid a ridiculous £4.95 for a bottle of it last Friday with a meal at a restaurant. It was absolutely divine though so I will say it was worth it. The perfect accompaniment to my venison, beef and horseradish burger. The name may have changed but the beer is still a rich 5.5% ABV winter classic (although it is available year round). Plenty of the usual flavours I am describing here with rich dark fruits and chocolate and a lovely bittersweet finish. This was probably my wife's favourite this past week and it is so easy to fall in love with.
Over the weekend I was able to break into my recent Ales By Mail selection in a big way with a couple of stouts to begin proceedings. The first of these was astounding. Hoxton Stout from newish London micro Redchurch. It smells both fruity and smoky and the first taste is quite intoxicating living up to the strength of 6.0% ABV. Rich sweet fruits give way to a coffee bitter finish but there are hints of vanilla and chocolate in there too. For me this is a perfect stout and probably the best I have tasted for a long time. My only complaint is that it came in such a very small bottle!!
On the same evening I followed up this amazing stout with a Double Stout from Westerham Brewery in Kent. At 5.5% ABV this was slightly less than the Hoxton Stout but pretty good nonetheless. It was fruitier and more chocolatey than the Hoxton. It is very smooth with not too much bitterness. It did not reach the heights of the Hoxton but it still acheived a 9/10 on my scoring chart and it came in a 500ml bottle (hurray).
Last night I moved on to a couple of porters. I had started the evening with a wheat beer which turned out to be very disappointing from By The Horns (Bobby On The Wheat). I followed this up with a Discovery Rich Cornish Porter (with blackcurrant and molasses) from the Altantic Brewery in Cornwall. It didn't look particularly good - not very clear and no head whatsoever. The smell it gave off was not much better and the average rating on Untappd of 2.26 sent alarm bells ringing. I was quite happy to let my wife try it first and it quickly came back. Her comment was whoever thought of putting blackcurrant and molasses together got it wrong. Absolutely disgusting was her overall veridct. I did surprise her by drinking all of it (it was only a small bottle thank the lord) but the combination of sour blackcurrant and everything else was truly awful. This is one beer that will not darken my door ever again.
The plan last night was to just have a couple of beers. Unfortunately ~I needed something that could make up for the awfulness of the first two. Five Points Railway Porter (4.8% ABV) was chosen because this brewery has never let me down and this beer soon brought a smile to my face. This was gorgeous with plenty of chocolate and coffee notes with a nice bittersweet character throughout.
This was an excellent end to week one of my dark journey throughout the month of December. With only one really duff dark it was a superb week and I'm looking for more of the same in week two.