A look at the Cheshire beer industry

Spitting Feathers Brewery

Spitting Feathers Brewery - Credit: Archant

A boom in craft breweries – and Cheshire is rich in them

Spitting Feathers Brewery; Matthew Walley making a brew

Spitting Feathers Brewery; Matthew Walley making a brew - Credit: Archant

This time of year brings with it the pop of champagne corks and decanting of fine wines to accompany festive meals. And nowadays connoisseurs can expect special beers to bring in the New Year.

Cheers, Matthew Walley, samples the ale

Cheers, Matthew Walley, samples the ale - Credit: Archant

Breweries in Cheshire - big and small - create a wide range of tipples for the season of goodwill: ‘We didn’t do one in our first years of operation, and people asked us why,’ says Hugh Thompson of Macclesfield’s Storm Brewing Company: ‘Now we always do Looks Like Rain Dear as our Christmas beer. It’s a completely different recipe to all our other brews - usually Christmas beers have been dark and quite fruity, but we went for a slightly lighter beer by way of contrast.’

Spitting Feathers Brewery in Waverton produces something closer to the conventional Christmas ale, but with a twist: ‘Our Christmas Cracker is a strong fruity beer that’s very easy to match with festive foods as it’s brewed with cinnamon and cloves and bay and one or two other Christmassy flavours,’ says brewer Matthew Walley: ‘They’re added to the mash tub, and with the strength there’s a sweetness to it. Not heavily bittered it’s easy to match with richer foods - it’s hopped with traditional British hops, so some floral and grassy flavours that go well with red meat, and with desserts.’ Few wines are as flexible.

Food matches are being facilitated with seasonal offerings like Frodsham Brewery: ‘Robbie the Reindeer – we make donations to Comic Relief for it - has a sort of gingerbread flavour, ideal for puddings,’ says owner Barrie Davidson.

Robinson’s in Stockport have another in the same style that pushes the idea further: ‘Ginger Tom has a subtle snap of ginger that creates lovely purring warmth for those cold winter nights,’ says brand manager John Robinson, who thinks the bruised Chinese ginger root and botanical extracts used in it make for a perfect pairing with mince pies. Robinson’s Old Tom, a classic strong winter ale made for more than a century, ticks another food match box, going with - or in - the Christmas pudding: ‘It’s not quite as flammable as brandy but not far behind!’ says John. Old Tom’s more restrained offshoot Tom and Berry (brewers apparently cannot resist a pun) has been made with the citrus, biscuit and dried fruit tones that are ideal to accompany Christmas cake.

A recent trade report* highlights the growing success of beer and food matching evenings in pubs, and reckons that 61 per cent of landlords have noted more women drinking ale, the two trends perhaps not unconnected. The explosion in the market of lighter and fragrantly hopped blonde ales made perhaps with one eye on the female drinker could be another factor, Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde just one such offering.

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Robinsons have taken the food with beer theme into a whole new area of late, working with TV chef Simon Rimmer to create individual brews whose characters are suited to drinking with respectively steak, chicken and curry. The smaller Frodsham brewery works with landlords to similar effect: ‘I brew special beers for pub customers designed to go with specific foods, say roast beef if a pub is ordering a beer to go with its menu - and then we have to try to persuade other pubs to take it,’ Barrie Davidson explains.

Some matches are nearly universally accepted, for example unctuous dark porters with their coffee and cocoa flavours standing up to the bitterness and richness of good dark chocolate. Other foods, and the Christmas turkey is one, engender difference and debate. John Robinson counsels traditional bitter for its thirst quenching qualities during the long lunch ordeal.

Hugh Thompson suggests something strong and dark like his Silk of Amnesia that will contrast with the white meat and bread sauce. Barrie Davidson’s proposal of Aonach, a Scottish 80 shilling ale, is on a similar wavelength. Matthew Walley differs: ‘For turkey where you’d traditionally drink white wine I’d look towards the paler, lighter beers,’ he says, reserving the heavier stuff for an alternative Christmas lunch of rib of beef, just as wine-lovers would go for a meaty Burgundy or Barolo.

Beer may be lower in alcohol content than wine, but moreish artisan ales are easy to sup, especially when complementing a favourite Yuletide dish. Matthew offers a word of caution about his Christmas Crackers that has wider application: ‘It goes with quite a few foods – I’d save it for the mince pies or pud at the end of the meal - but it’s not a beer you should be drinking very many pints of!’ Not if you want to remember Christmas anyway. n

The Cask Report 2013 – 14 by Pete Brown

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