Why is it that most holiday beers are as dark as the early nights of winter, contain warming spices and have alcohol levels approaching that of wine? It’s likely because these complex-flavored beers pair well with the heavy meals and endless desserts we enjoy around the holidays. Or maybe it’s that they foster warm memories, like the holidays themselves, with essences evocative of grandma’s spiced desserts, while the alcohol warms your belly and stokes warm, lively conversation.
Local breweries have no shortage of holiday beers this season, ranging from big stouts and Belgian beers to uniquely spiced concoctions. A growler to share with family and friends would make a great pairing during cavity overindulgent feasts, or to enjoy while reflecting in front of a fire.
The two basic tenets of beer pairings are that of complement and contrast. coals Odd 13’s Spruce Campbell stout offers a lesson in the latter when paired with oysters. Spruce Campbell has a big body with loads of roast and chocolate flavors, which heighten the subtle flavors in the sweet and salty brine of an oyster. The addition of spruce adds an extra holiday reusing element and a faint hint of pine and mint.
The Old Mine’s Crandlebar Hard Cider is doused with cranberries, vanilla, orange zest, cinnamon and brown sugar, adding a complexity of spices to a well-balanced, sweet yet dry cider. The flavor gives one the sensation of biting into a crisp apple, but is understated in its saccharine qualities, lending itself well to salads and other lighter fare, preferably with a fatty element like rich goat cheese.
For an herbal twist, Wild Woods offers Roasted Root Amber from the “Beers Made By Walking” series, which encourages breweries to craft beers with local ingredients inspired by nature walks and urban hikes. Roasted Root was made with help from a local herbalist and is flavored with chicory and burdock. The additions give the beer an unmistakable earthiness, with a hint of nuttiness and spice, pairing well with any number of savory dishes like stuffing, chestnut soup or lamb.
Wild Woods also offers a collaborative holiday beer with their neighbors at BRU — the full-flavored Winter Warmer. The persistence of spice, deriving from mace, clove, orange peel, honey and cranberry additions, would complement the bold and distinctive flavors of smoked meats.
Upslope’s Christmas Ale, which has become as locally ubiquitous as the holidays themselves, is another spiced winter warmer that pairs well with main courses. There is no subtlety in its spice additions, with clove making its presence known in both aroma and flavor, along with customary Belgian dubbel flavors of dried fruit and raisin. A sugar-cured ham, or one baked with cloves, offers a beautiful accompaniment with equally rich and complementing flavors.
To complement heavier fare, Powder Keg offers Noble Barbarian, a Baltic porter. Despite the strong flavors of roast, chocolate and mouth-coating malty richness, this 9.8 percent ABV beer is sneakily drinkable and smooth with no harsh finish.
Redstone Meadery’s Honey Wine with Vanilla Beans and Cinnamon Sticks can be enjoyed as a dessert in itself, but could also be paired with delicate desserts like custard or bread pudding. The alfalfa and wildflower honeys contribute an initial mild sweetness and floral aroma, with a muted background of cinnamon and vanilla.
Another subtly spiced brew, made by Liquid Mechanics, is the Chai Holiday Brown. The base is an English mild, which allows the Savory Spices’ chai mix to take center stage with flavor components of ginger, cardamom, clove and licorice. An addition of lactose adds a hint of sweet cream, just like a dollop of milk with chai spiced tea. Also like chai, this beer would be great with a spiced cake like banana bread.