Winter is a good season for beer. The long nights give us an excuse to crack a bottle at half four, the coldness outside gives us cause to hammer dark and warming ales, and the fear that Krampus will come and eat us in the night for being naughty drives us to higher and higher peaks of alcoholic excess. The budget supermarkets are always hit by a wave of seasonal, spicy, sometimes pretty tacky beers this time of year, and since the big day is a week down the line, here’s four of them. Of varying quality.
Very varying quality.
Wychwood’s Bah Humbug ale is first out of the traps, in an entirely random running order. The scent from the open neck of the bottle is all malt, zero hop, supermarket strong lager aroma. It pours the dark red-brown of an ancient pub couch, or a well worn and ruddy leather wingback, topped with a slender white head that is buoyed up by steady, light carbonation.
A good, long sniff easily dredges up the scent of the cinnamon with which the beer is spiced, along with banana-ish notes that need to be grasped a little for; a quick snozz of the beer just brings up cinnamon and cinnamon.
The first mouthful gives a strong hit of cinnamon along with an overruling bitterness that seems to shout out the cinnamon flavour for a minute or so. There’s a pleasant fruitcakey aftertaste that, as the beer level descends, seems to skew towards the nutmeg end of the taste spectrum.
With three fingers left in the glass the scent becomes intricate and confused, a surprisingly loud and raucous collision of allspice, sultanas, banana and golden syrup, with the cinnamon still laying down the backbeat. The final taste chokes the senses with carbonation and oily maltiness, with an aftertaste of too-ripe banana lying on the tongue.
Wychwood get a lot of traction from character and novelty beers (after all, their motto is “Brewers of Character”). They do like a seasonal tie-in, and their Pumpking pumpkin ale, which is okay if you don’t chill its flavour to death, led their assault on the budget supermarket Autumn scene until this year when it appears it was replaced by their dark beer Dunkel Fester- fronted by an appropriately bald and weird Addams-looking bloke. Their Dr Thirsty blonde beer, its label adorned with a cross between Papa Lazarou and P.T. Barnum, was powerfully unspectacular despite its freak show swagger. A few years ago their cider apple beer Snake's Bite had a gloriously cheesy heavy metal label and I stick by my quite ambivalent review of it. I never got round to drinking their collaboration with Status Quo. I look at it my bottle of it now and then and say “nah”.
This Wychwood job is decent. It’s tidy and ticks the Christmas beer boxes while being easily sessioned at 5% abv, and with a pleasant medium body. It goes for £1.25 at Aldi (and my local one at least has slashed it down to 99p). It’s not a must-buy but it’s leagues away from a must-miss.
Shepherd Neame knocks out a beer for every occasion under its Master Brewer’s Choice range. I’m more than convinced that, should global thermonuclear war break out, Shepherd Neame could ship at least 1,000 bottles of Four Minute Warning Ale to branches of Lidl nationwide. Aliens turn up unexpectedly? You bet your fucking life that Shepherd Neame has been holding back a First Contact Ale just in case. The Sun suddenly swells to 50,000 times its size, swallowing up the planet Earth over a period of several agonising days? Shepherd Neame can ship Sunburn Ale all over the UK before the last human being evaporates. No sweat.
Opening a bottle of Rudolph’s Reward, which has a label slightly less cliparty than most of their offerings, brings out a nose of malt, pondy dampness and the smell of compressed air. It pours the colour of bloody water and has a wild head that quickly cowers down. The first taste is powerfully metallic. Imagine listening to the teenage Metallica thrash out Phantom Lord while your head is rammed inside a metal waste bin and your mates are belting it with sticks the whole time. Imagine literally biting a moutful of iron filings and you’re there. METAL.
A lesser man would just, at this point, link you all to a YouTube rip of Phantom Lord and leave it at that, snarking happily into the night about this shitty beer. But I’m made of sterner stuff and clearly a masochist because after a few drinks the mouthful-of-tin taste does dissipate and you can taste what little beer flavour there is.
Rudolph’s Reward isn’t spicy, or even very hoppy. It doesn’t do what it says on the label. There is slight, SLIGHT, and ghostly, caramel there. There’s malt and biscuit and hops but malt and biscuit and hops after a rainstorm or a disastrous flood. All the flavours, anaemic as they are, are swamped in wetness. It’s not the dank wetness of a hydroponic farm. It’s not the wetness of a brisk summer rainstorm. It’s just soggy. It’s a waterlogged beer and, at only 3.8% abv, is watery in taste and body.
There’s nothing of Christmas in this beer. There’s nothing of the frostbitten season of death and rebirth, but it is in its own three-legged-dog way quite refreshing. It’s a beer for a hot day, for a knuckleheaded weekend at the beach with a cooler full of cheap-ass brews, inexplicably released at Christmas time with a reindeer on the label.
I picked this up at my local Lidl a week ago. When I checked for more beer just tonight it had all gone, and a new Winter beer had sprung up in its stead.
In the future, when we’ve all found better things to get in internet shitfights over, we might look back at the point where “craft” broke as the launch of Lidl’s Hatherwood Craft Beer Company range. We might talk about this as a momentous occasion where craft beer was brought affordably to the masses, via contract brews for a budget supermarket’s own brand. We might get bogged down in semantics over the size of the breweries doing the contract brewing. We might talk about it as one of the many points where scores of beer fans got Mad Online about something.
This is all to come. Right now we have Hatherwood’s The Winter Warmer (keeping in line with the range’s mostly alliterative naming conventions that have given us The Golden Goose, The Green Gecko, The Purple Panther and several other Marvel superhero runner-up names) which was brewed for Lidl by Hogs Back Brewery and gives a powerfully cakey and spicy scent from the open neck. After a good couple of investigative huffs the aroma reorganises itself on the senses as a near-perfect imitation of Christmas cake.
The pour is lamp-oil thick, smoothly filling the glass with black liquid at a parade-ground polish. The scent becomes more citric and riper as the beer interacts with the room air, and the taste is fecund and rich cake, bitter and sweet and spicy in equal measures. Of the beers so far, this is the only one with any particularly warming quality. The alcohol burn, at only 0.5% stronger than Bah Humbug, is surprisingly noticeable. This is a thick beer, not the thickest, but sturdy enough to make the drinker conscious of their throat opening just a little wider to allow its passage.
On further mouthfuls this is a cloying and sugary beer, syrupy and rich and with an increasingly powerful nose as the glass empties. A mouthful taken in sharply, rolled around the mouth and swallowed feels like a spice rack exploding on a lake of molasses, and this is a good thing. Trust me.
Arriving in a little 330ml bottle, The Winter Warmer is a quick drink. At a half litre it might be a little overwhelming. As it is, this petite, warming, heavy-hitter is a surprising and exciting, invigorating and intoxicating beer. Joyously throwing back the final three fingers of this beer is an application of a tonne of brown sugar, mixed with spice and treacle directly to the tongue, and altogether glorious.
At £1.25 a bottle from Lidl this is Miracle Shit. Buy it.
Sadler’s Ales have never disappointed me. Still though, I was ready for disappointment as I shuffled to the checkout at my local Aldi with an armful of bottles of Reigndeer, a record player, several naan breads and a load of other stuff that I should have got a basket for.
I’d only gone in for beer and clearly can’t be trusted with money.
I was primed for disappointment because I was expecting nothing but badness from my mission to drink and rate bargain shop Christmas beers. Three beers down and my expectations of terrible mundanity are fading. For the most part, anyway. I’m looking in your direction, Shepherd Neame.
Reigndeer, a winter amber ale, pours to a thin-headed light maroon. All this comes after the cap pops off and a scent like a less dank version of Sadler’s Peaky Blinder black IPA snakes its way out of the neck. It’s hoppy and fruity and a little grimy in a good, tastily decaying way.
The first mouthful is herby, hoppy and floral. There are thin lemony notes of citricity. The beer sticks to the teeth and works its way into the tissues of the mouth and tongue and there the lemony-limey smack bores its way into the senses.
Reigndeer is all treble, all sharp hoppy notes with no really deep, malty bassline. It’s a piercing and palate cleansing beer that dessicates and parches. After the baritone of Bah Humbug, the [REEL MISSING] of Rudolph’s Reward and the deep bass of The Winter Warmer, Reigndeer finishes the night on a falsetto of clear cut fruit notes, with a spicy quality that comes out in the nose after two thirds of the beer is gone.
A few deep huffs of the glass brings forth further, deeper spice, a hint of tobacco, and smoky chocolate coming through faint as a ghost that’s hijacked a radio, and then it’s head back and throat wide and beer gone. The final taste is spice and warmth and a sizzle of citrus juice as our pre-Christmas investigation comes to an end.
I didn’t expect this process to be a duck-shoot on some poor beers, but I didn’t expect it to raise any real surprises either. This has been a four-bottle voyage of discovery.
Christmas is looming terrifyingly large and close and anxiety-inducing right now. If you’re after Christmas presents for yourself or for beer fans in your life, then you can get Bah Humbug from Aldi at 99p a bottle, The Winter Warmer from Lidl at £1.25 a bottle and Reigndeer from Aldi at 99p a bottle and B&M Bargains from £1.25 a bottle. Just to be even-handed, you could as of a couple of weeks ago get Rudolph’s Reward from Lidl at £1.25, but you could always wait until the Sun swells to devour the world and they roll out their Everyone Dies Oh Shit Farewell Earth Ale, which will probably taste almost exactly the same.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa, Goddamn Fuckin’ Wild Saturnalia, Functional and Efficient Festivus and all the other equally great excuses to Party The Baby Off to all of you. See you all next year.