One of the greatest things about beer is its affinity for food. And that’s most apparent during the holidays, when beer pairing suggestions for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner have become an annual tradition.
This year, my plan is to make it easy by concentrating on three classic styles — saison, brown ale, and imperial stout — that will progress from light and bubbly to dark and strong, and match the meal from hors d’oeuvres to turkey to dessert.
One of my favorites, Belgian-style saison is one of the most refreshing and food-friendly styles to be found. Traditional examples are made much like Champagne, employing pale malts and secondary fermentation with yeast added to bottles sealed with a cork and wire cage.
The result is a bright, highly carbonated beer with a rocky head and a range of spicy, fruity and hoppy flavors and aromas, before a dry, often tart finish. All that plays very well with food. But for the holidays, saison really stars with snacks and starters, from cheese and charcuterie to spicy boiled shrimp and smoked salmon.
The Belgian classic is Saison Dupont from Brasserie Dupont. If you can find the corked bottles, it makes for a dramatic presentation, especially pulled from an ice bucket. But four-packs of 11-ounce bottles are readily available in package stores.
A Belgian-style American favorite is Hennepin from Brewery Ommegang. It’s spiced with coriander, ginger, orange peel and grains of paradise, and it’s also readily available in corked bottles or four-packs.
Why brown ale?
A British classic made a craft beer staple by American brewers, brown ale isn’t as popular as it once was, if it ever was. But I think it’s an underrated and very versatile malt-forward style, with many variations in sweetness, caramel character and medium to dry finish.
You can pair it with fish, poultry or beef. But why it works particularly well with the holiday feast is due to the similarity between the Maillard reaction in the roasted barley in brown ales and the flavors of roasted turkey and all the trimmings. Dressing, gravy and even sweet potatoes are all good to go with it, too.
What brown ale?
Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale is a British classic, now available in cans, if you can believe it. The dark-amber color and deep malt flavors with a touch of nuttiness make it perfect with turkey or roasted duck, and Stilton after dinner.
From Tampa, Cigar City Maduro is described as a “Northern English-style Brown Ale with some American affectations.” It’s full of roasted and chocolate flavors and aromas and features a silky mouthfeel from the addition of oats.
Why imperial stout?
While imperial stout is British in origin, American craft brewers have taken it up a notch in flavor and alcohol content, and more or less made it their own. Big beer lovers swoon over the roasted barley character that gives these strong stouts a bittersweet edge.
What’s especially nice is that they can be cellared and will develop some winy notes. But just-brewed or aged a bit imperial stouts are rich and dark with coffee and chocolate notes, making them the perfect dessert beer, especially with chocolate or strong cheese. If you’re thinking of pumpkin, sweet potato or pecan pie, though, go back to brown ale.
What imperial stout?
One of my favorite beers, period, North Coast Old Rasputin is a stellar example of an American craft brewery taking on a traditional old-world style in a big way. It’s at once malty, roasty and bittersweet, with notes of dark fruit, dark chocolate, and black coffee.
One of my all-time favorite seasonal beers, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, is lush with dark cacao aromas and flavors, and a pervasive bittersweet character. Best of all, at 10% alcohol, it ages beautifully, and makes a gift that keeps on giving.
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