It's that time of year when I can start putting a bit of a hole in the more wintery parts of my Belgian ale collection. They're a random bunch so this could go either way.
First up is Abbaye de Roc Spéciale Noël whose serious dark blue label looks classy enough to be trustworthy. But as soon as the cap came off there was beer everywhere. Corralled into a glass it's the picture of innocence again: dark red and blanketed by a thick white head. But look closely and there are unsettling gobbets of yeast bobbing around in the dark murky depths. Worse, the flavour is a complete mess: far too hot, to begin with, with those lovely dark Belgian fruit flavours doused in cheap sherry. Beyond that there's a weird medicinal eucalyptus thing, shading towards unpleasant disinfectant. This stuff is severely lacking in seasonal cheer.
Hopes were higher when it came to De Ranke and their jolly green-label Père Noël. It's a modest 7% ABV and a decidedly unfestive orange colour. Among the ingredients helpfully listed is liquorice, the only bit of seasonal enhancement. I can't say I'd have picked it out from the taste alone, or indeed any trace that this is supposed to be a Christmas ale. More than anything it tastes like a tripel, with the mix of honey, herbs and spices that that entails, plus an appropriate bitter kick at the end. All in all it's pretty straightforward, inoffensive stuff. Fine for year-round drinking, but I want a beer with a bit more yuletide character.
Time to break out the big guns: if Brasserie De La Senne can't deliver a satisfactorily beery Christmas, no-one can. The stash gives me X-Mas Zinnebir and let's skip over the bizarre manger scene on the label. It's another gusher but slow enough for me to catch, thankfully. From the dark red 7.8% ABV beer I get an aroma of roasted chestnuts, so that's appropriately wintery for starters. The texture is also spot-on for a winter warmer: rich and heavy and just gently sparkled. Disappointingly there are no festive spices in the flavour but instead you get a rock-solid malt-forward ale brimming with sweet toffee enhanced by whispers of pipesmoke and a very unChristmassy strawberry tartness. Not amazing but there's nothing upsetting going on either. Sometimes that's the best we can hope for at Christmas.