Since I started the Devon A-Z challenge in the autumn, one thing that I have not written much about is beer. This may seem a little surprising, since this challenge grew out of the Year in Beer challenge and that, believe it or not, was largely beer-based. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I wanted to try a range of things as part of the Devon A-Z and I have been sidetracked by all of the other local food and drink that is available. Secondly, there are a lot of beers in Devon. More than I can keep up with.
Some highly unscientific research (thank you Google) reveals at least 27 breweries in Devon. If you assume that they all produce at least three core beers (a reasonable assumption, on average, I would have thought), then that means that there are over 80 beers in circulation at any one time. Add to that those breweries that produce a wider range, plus seasonal beers, and you have a lot of beer to get through. I’m not sure my liver could take the challenge. I know my wallet certainly cannot.
In the spirit of trying to be seasonal where I can, I have taken the opportunity to dip my toe into Devon beers (figuratively speaking, I hasten to add) by trying a selection of Christmas beers. The thought alone may drive some people shuddering into the arms of their favourite beer. The recipe for a Christmas beer can sometimes read a little like this: take a decent beer, add spice, perhaps some fruit and, ta-da, a Christmas beer. Less than the sum of its parts. I’m hoping the wily Devonian brewers have something a little more sophisticated up their sleeves.
This is the first Quercus beer I have tried. It has a deep colour (something that is a recurring theme among the Christmas beers) with little in the way of a head. It edged towards bitter, rather than sweet and this was a pleasant surprise for a Christmas beer. I was worried that they might go overboard on the sweetness for Christmas, but this retained a bitterness you would want from a pint of bitter. Overall, I thought this was perhaps a little underwhelming. It has hints of chocolate in the aroma, but I didn’t get much of anything within the taste of the beer itself.
Although this particular beer didn’t do it for me, Quercus have been recommended to me on more than one occasion (including in the comments section of the Devon A-Z page), so I will resolve to try some more of their beers. It’s a hard life but someone has to do it.
Bays Jingle Ale
Bays Brewery always have classy designs on their bottles and Jingle Ale was no different. Simple, good design. Again, this is a deep, copper colour with (in words taken straight from the scribbled notes I made when drinking it) a “fruitcake-y fruitiness” to the aroma. I don’t know how I come up with this stuff, I really don’t. There are definitely some hints of slightly burnt fruitcake in there though, I’m sure of it. As unappetising as that may sound, it works rather well.
Their advertised “festive hoppy finish” does deliver a pleasing bitter end after a sweeter maltiness. It starts sweet and ends bitter; it sounds like the Eastenders Christmas Special. And there’s nothing more festive than that!
Teignworthy Christmas Cracker
Teignworthy are based in Newton Abbot, at Tucker’s Maltings, home to the great beer festival I visited earlier in the year. This is a stronger Christmas beer, at 6% ABV, and is a noticeably smoother, richer beer. It has a deeper colour than the Jingle Ale but retains a similar fruitcake hint to its flavour. It might also have a bit of Christmas pudding in the aroma. Then again, it might not; I do have a bit of a cold. There is certainly a treacle element to it.
It doesn’t linger and it doesn’t have the same bitterness that Jingle Ale has. You wouldn’t want to drink too many of these in front of the fire on Christmas afternoon. If the huge lunch doesn’t do for you, this beer will, and you will be fast asleep before you know it. It is certainly a nice beer to finish your evening with though.
Otter Brewery is one of the Devon breweries with the widest reach. Two of their beers made it onto the Independent’s Top 50 list that was the subject of my Year in Beer and Otter Claus is their Christmas offering.
This winter ale forms the basis of all of their seasonal beers and is, again, a deep copper colour with a small head that bubbles away quickly. It has a pleasant malty, warming taste and it went very well with the roast chicken meal Mrs RB had prepared. A better beer to have with your turkey leftovers perhaps, although at 5% there is still a risk that it may send you sailing off to sleep this weekend if you have too many. I’m not sure why I have assumed that everyone will be slumbering quietly beside a roaring fire this weekend; well done if you’re out and about enjoying a hearty walk. If you are, there’s a good chance that a pint of Otter may just await you in the pub at the end (it’s compulsory that all Christmas walks end at a pub I’m sure).
Red Rock have recently grown their capacity, allowing them greater production capability and a greater reach for their beers. Christmas Cheer is a solid bitter and, although it clocks in at 5.2%, it doesn’t taste as strong as that might imply. I must admit that I didn’t pick up the cinnamon flavours that are meant to be there, but I did get cloves and a nice maltiness. Despite what I said at the top of the post about the perils of sticking extra spices into a decent bitter, this beer doesn’t suffer for it and it remains a decent pint of beer.
Last but not least, Hunter’s Brewery serve up Dashers Dinkle as their Christmas beer. A dark amber colour, this smells very appealing. It is a smooth beer that washes nicely around your mouth, with a good malt base and a bitter finish. Enjoyably bitter, in fact. It somehow manages to feel like a winter ale without overdoing the spices. This was another Christmas beer that I liked a lot more than I thought I would, given my initial reservations about how Christmas can ruin a good beer.
Overall, I have to say that these beers surprised me and were better than I had expected. Seeing as though I don’t have a hope of trying every single beer produced in Devon within the next eight months or so, this small sample has reminded me that there are some great breweries around and it allowed me to try a handful of their beers.
It also means that I have clocked up entries against the letters B, H, O, Q, R and T and that’s not a bad haul. Please keep an eye on the Devon A-Z page to see what progress I can make in ticking off the remaining letters of the alphabet in 2014.
And if you wanted to tick off any Devon breweries yourselves, the 27 breweries I mentioned at the top of the post were:
- Beer Engine
- Combe Martin
- Exe Valley
- Isca (Gargoyle)
- New Lion
- Red Rock
- South Hams
- Tavy Ales
- Topsham Ales
- The Union
- Wizard Ales
Just to reiterate, this is the completely unverified result of five minutes spent with Google. If I have missed any, or if any of these have closed down, I apologise. Please let me know and I’m happy to amend the list.