FORGET your Rudolf socks, forget those stripy scarf-and-hat sets that most sharp-dressed guys seem to be wearing these days – why not treat your family drinker to something special this Christmas?
There is a rash of good books on the market, starting with the forensically-researched 2013 Good Beer Guide, with details on 4,500 pubs nationwide. Published by the Campaign for Real Ale, this is the 40th edition of the Guide, which has for many years been edited by renowned beer writer Roger Protz.
The history of the guide reflects that of the Campaign itself, whose tireless work since 1971 has seen the real ale drinker re-assert himself and change from endangered species to powerful force.
Places in the Guide are much-prized, just seven pubs have made it into every edition. But banish any thoughts that CAMRA’s work is done – profits from sales of the guide are re-invested directly into campaigning for drinkers’ rights, for real ale, community pubs, drinkers’ rights and to secure the future of this thriving craft sector of British industry.
Far fewer houses have made it into CAMRA’s Great British Pubs, but those which have are covered in much greater detail. Written by an old drinking buddy of mine, Adrian Tierney-Jones, this attractive guide visits more than 200 pubs around the country, with detailed descriptions of each, whether he’s talking about the dramatic coastline beyond the Gurnard’s Head in Cornwall or the ornate marble urinals of the Philharmonic in Liverpool.
Yorkshire is well represented – Leeds’s Adelphi and North Bar, Huddersfield’s Grove and Dewsbury’s West Riding are among those included – but this book could be an ideal travelling companion for ale lovers who are travelling further afield.
Those who are less concerned by the weight of their luggage might even wish to pack the doorstep-sized Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by American writer, bon viveur and brewing guru Garrett Oliver.
At almost 1,000 pages long, the Companion affords to beer the kind of scholarly examination which Oxford University Press had previously reserved for classical music, fine art or great literature. Its many hundreds of entries cover the whole field – the many styles of beers, the brewing traditions of countries worldwide, the major brewers, the many strains of hop and malt who lend their characteristics to the taste, plus some of the flavours and defects which reveal a beer to be not at its best.
For beer-tickers, home brewers, beer writers – indeed anyone who just wants to broaden their knowledge of the subject, this is so indispensable a work of reference that I have to wonder how I ever managed without it.
There are fewer words – but way more pictures – in the World Atlas of Beer, Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont’s coffee-table guide to the breweries of the world. It covers some obvious bases – Belgium, Germany, the UK and the USA – but also seeks out some great beers in less obvious territories. Japan, for example, where a map of the country is studded by the 60-or-so craft breweries which have sprung up around the islands over the past few decades, and where quality beer is beginning slowly to supplant sake as the national drink.
From the Hebrew Pomegranate Ale they discover in New York state, to the flat, black and super-spicy Lammin Sahti of Finland, from Hanoi’s own Czech-style pilsner to a Scotch-style ale from New Zealand, Webb and Beaumont take their readers on a beautifully- illustrated alcoholic journey to the four corners of the globe.
Its geographic scope is less ambitious, its presentation not so lavish, but my own Great Leeds Pub Crawl is still in the shops too – and you can find it cheaper on Ebay too. Apparently those few copies which I didn’t sign command the highest prices.
For those who prefer to treat their loved ones to something liquid for Christmas, several brewers have special ales on the market this winter. First up is Greene King, whose boxed-and-wrapped version of Old Speckled Hen marks the 50th anniversary of the MGB.
The history of the beer is closely tied up with that of MG Motors – it was previously brewed by Morland Brewery in Abingdon, which is also the spiritual home of the motoring marque. The original “old speckled ’un” which gave the beer its names was a paint-flecked car which was used as a runabout at the MG factory. The beer is now under GK’s control, the car company Japanese-owned, but the connection continues. Fiercely-strong Progress Ale marks 20 years of the Black Sheep Brewery, founded by Paul Theakston in direct competition to the family-owned concern which bears his famous surname. The two Masham breweries now exist relatively peacably, side-by-side in the North Yorkshire town.
At 10% ABV, this fiercely strong golden bitter will not be to everyone’s taste, but thankfully the 750ml bottle comes with a resealable swingtop lid so that you don’t have to drink it all at once. It’s perfectly presented too – the image of a lost sheep on a country lane printed directly onto the bottle.
But for high-end presentation you don’t have to look any further than Shepherd Neame Generation Ale, which comes in its own wooden box. This rich dark ale from Britain’s oldest brewer is a touch less potent at 9%, and will set you back almost £18 for a 750ml bottle, plus a handy hinged coffin which might be put to all manner of storage uses in the new year. It’s warming, soporific toffee-ish notes might be just the thing to help you wind down at the end of a long Christmas Day.
CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide 2013, £12.99, from www.camra.org.uk
CAMRA’s Great British Pubs, £9.59 from www.amazon.co.uk
Oxford Companion to Beer, £35 from http://ukcatalogue.oup.com
The World Atlas of Beer, £25 from www.octopusbooks.co.uk
The Great Leeds Pub Crawl, £9.99 from www.dbpublishing.co.uk
Old Speckled Hen is widely available in supermarkets, visit www.oldspeckledhen.co.uk for a chance to win a vintage MGB.
Black Sheep Progress Limited Edition Anniversary Ale, £14.95 from www.blacksheepbrewery.com
Shepherd Neame Generation Ale, £17.95 from www.shepherdneame.co.uk