The Christmas season is approaching and beer isn’t immune to spicing things up for winter. People drink with their eyes before their mouths and what people tend to prefer as the nights get darker and colder are darker beers and, often, stronger beers.
We aren’t just talking stouts here, although they will always play their part. Many breweries, including the large multinationals, often have winter beers available. Sometimes these are just slightly darker versions of an existing beer and sometimes they are flavoured with festive spices, similar to mulled wine. In fact, you can mull beer and cider too. I have seen mulled beer available in France, Belgium and the Czech Republic. I’m fairly certain you can take almost any European country with cold winters and you will find mulled beer for sale in bars and restaurants.
It tends to work better with Belgian beers such as Kriek but you can mull any beer. The rule here would be to avoid overly hop forward beers such as an IPA. An Irish red ale would be perfect, especially if it’s fairly strong. You mull it in exactly the same way as wine or cider.
Some of the winter ales available around this time of year include:
- Dungarvan - Coffee and Oatmeal Stout
- St Mel's - Raisin and Oatmeal Stout
- O'Hara's - Winter Star
- Beoir Chorcha Duibhne - Riasc Black
There will likely be many more released in the coming weeks so it’s worth keeping an eye out.
Perhaps one of the best known is White Gypsy’s Yule Ól. This should be on everyone’s Christmas drinks menu. It’s a big 6% ale with lots of toffee and chocolate flavours as well as some coffee. You can also expect some dark berries and spices. Think of the beer version of Christmas pudding and you will be on the right track.
If you want to try something different, then I can think of no better candidate than the world renowned Samichlaus from Austria. As you might guess, the word translates into English as Santa Claus. It’s brewed on December 6th (Saint Nicholas' Eve) each year and then aged for 10 months. At 14%, it needs to be treated with respect. For many years, this was the strongest lager in the world. You can expect prunes and caramel on the nose. Once in the mouth, you will find it is very sweet and tastes syrupy but doesn’t have a cloying mouth feel. This is a lager, so it will be rather refreshing despite its high alcoholic level. A wonderful beer to sip on a cold night. Prunes and fruitcake abound. You can expect to pair this with rich chocolate. For me, Samichlaus is the ultimate Christmas dinner digestif.
So what about the Christmas dinner itself? What beer would complement your traditional turkey? There are a number of options available to you, depending on whether you want to compliment or contrast. To compliment, a caramel forward beer such as a traditional Irish red ale will do nicely. This should complement the caramelisation of the turkey and roast potatoes. Any Irish red will do but I can recommend 8 Degrees’ Sunburnt Irish Red in particular. For something stronger, try a Belgian style dopplebock like the one from White Gypsy (750ml bottle).
Want to contrast instead? Something a little different might be in order. A little known French style of beer is Bière de Garde. They are a little similar to some Belgian style ales but a lot less heavy in body. Carbonation is high and it’s this that will lift the grease from your palate and leave you refreshed for your next course. It also helps that it’s a very refreshing style of beer. I would recommend a 750ml bottle of La Goudale as my favourite example available in Ireland.
If you want a cross between the rich caramel of a red ale and the lively carbonation of Bière de Garde, then you are probably looking for a Belgian dubbel. High in carbonation, these beers lift the mouth-coating richness of gravy & mashed potatoes from the palate. Flavour-wise, the dubbel sports a one-two punch of dense dark fruit and a peppery, clove-like phenol character that complements sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and the turkey itself. You don’t even need to pick a Belgian beer – you can keep it Irish by getting a 750ml bottle of White Gypsey’s Dubbel.
One last thing, most of the beers I mention have a rather high alcohol content. So be careful this Christmas! You want to have a Christmas you can actually remember so have a wonderful and, above all, responsible Christmas.