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Lots of things coincide to make our winter eating and drinking habits turn towards the comforting, reassuring and downright indulgent.
And science can’t wholly agree on what exactly the key factor is: a need for serotonin, the urge to put on a layer of insulation as the cold approaches – or possibly all the festive food adverts on TV.
But as the temperatures drop, my thoughts turn not only to slightly more calorific dishes, but also to deeper, more complex drinks, and, by happy coincidence, how well they pair with more wintery dishes.
Whether it’s a bold beer, crisp cider or tongue-prickling perry, branching out from the usual bottle of red can reap rewards on winter nights. Here’s how to choose the best, plus some of my favourite options.
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Picking the best festive beer
Bolder beers really come into their own at this time of year, and have the ability to take an ordinary dish and elevate it to sumptuous levels. They also go very well with a cheeseboard.
One beer I’m never without on my Christmas table is Fuller’s Vintage Ale (8.5% ABV, £6 for 500ml).
This year’s release tastes like warmly spiced strawberry jam on rye toast, and I expect it to mellow beautifully. I find it matches well with goose, cutting through the richness, but it’s equally good with Christmas pudding.
This is a beer that matures well, so if you enjoy it I recommend starting your own collection.
Store the bottles upright somewhere cool and dark, and then try them at varying ages. Note that, like wine vintages, there are better years and worse years to be drinking these beers.
As a rough rule of thumb, I’ve found that:
- Up to 3 years – they age well
- Age 4-5 years – they don’t taste as great
- After 5-6 years – they generally get better again until the eighth year.
After that, you need to give them another year or two to come back into their own.
Another good festive option is Cardinal Syn, from St Austell in Cornwall (7.8%, £35 for 12x330ml or £2.90 for a single bottle).
This beer is a delight with roast beef, but I think it’s most at home next to an array of cheeses, and it can stand up to the smelliest of them. Put simply, it’s a boozy fruitcake in a glass.
Siren’s Broken Dreams (6.5% ABV, from £2 for 330ml) is one for those who prefer the dark side.
It’s a ‘breakfast stout’, but that’s not a serving suggestion. The name comes from the mix of grains used – oats and flaked wheat – similar to a muesli or cereal. It’s a smooth mix of chocolate and coffee flavours, with just a hint of dark fruit.
If you’re after gluten-free beer, Wold Top’s Marmalade Porter (5% ABV, £1.85, 500ml) is an absolute joy.
Imagine a dark-chocolate orange in beer form, and you don’t even have to crack it into segments! It pairs wonderfully with a nice rind-washed cheese or vanilla ice cream.
Want something with less of a kick? See our guide to the best low-alcohol beers
Choice ciders for a Boxing Day ham
Cider might not be on the traditional Christmas drinks list, but it’s a worthy pairing for some choice festive fare.
One of my personal favourites is the keenly priced Aspall Premier Cru (6.8% ABV, from £1.80 for 500ml), which is filled with notes of tart cooking apple, a hint of elderflower and a light waft of cedar.
It’s a great foil to the saltiness of a festive ham or a salt-baked celeriac.
If you want to go bigger in flavour, then Thatcher’s Oak Aged Vintage Cider (7.4% ABV, from £2 for 500ml) for me really stands up to roast game, and would make a nice point of difference with turkey.
If you prefer something a little sweeter, Westons Vintage Rosé (5.5% ABV, £2.25, 500ml) works as an excellent foil to very sweet desserts. I’ve found it also works well with spicy Szechuan dishes such as red braised pork belly.
Branch out with a perry
Winter doesn’t always mean reaching for something dark and boozy. The promise of summer in the darker months can be just the thing, and one way to get that in liquid form is to try one of the most underrated drinks in the UK: perry.
Real perry is a complex, delicate thing of beauty that makes the ideal aperitif and takes on an extra edge of elegance when served in a fluted glass.
It’s not only lower in alcohol than most sparkling wines, it also makes for a subtly uplifting accompaniment to delicate starters such as smoked salmon or trout.
A fairly readily available option is from Waitrose; the supermarket’s own-brand No.1 Vintage Perry (1.2% ABV, £2.25 for 500ml) is made with pears from a single harvest and matured in traditional wooden vats. The result is a mellow pear flavour with top notes of dried orange peel and a little pop of white pepper.
Buy Waitrose No.1 Vintage Perry from Waitrose.
Best food and drink – see all our top recommendations for the festive season, from mince pies and champagne to cheese and coffee