While wine has traditionally served as the go-to libation for holiday food accompaniment, in recent years beer lovers have increasingly found themselves reaching into the fridge for a brew to wash down the rich dishes at the big table. Because it’s the time of year for good eatings, we’ll look at food and beer pairings for everything from appetizers to dessert.
Starting off, the rule of thumb is to go light, especially if that’s how you’re going to begin Christmas dinner. Lighter fare like creamy cheeses and hors d’oeuvres trays go best with beers which are equally light on the palate. Bubbly lagers and light sours — think Gose or Berliner Weisse — are perfect here. Lively acidity and highly carbonated beers are great for cleansing the palate without weighing you down before you’ve even really started to eat. While many consider the pale ale to be a lighter beer, you have to remember where you are: Northwest pale ales aren’t light on the palate at all. Most pale ales in this region pack a hoppy punch and usually have over 6 percent ABV. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You must plan accordingly.
I would, however, be remiss if I didn’t mention a key exception: Caesar salad. Technically a member of the light fare category, Caesar salad packs a wallop on the palate. One of my absolute favorite pairings for hop-forward pales and IPAs, Caesar salad should pair well with a session IPA in this case. Think big hop, but lighter body and alcohol. This party’s just getting started!
As you move toward the main course, you can certainly start planning to break out that favorite pale ale or IPA you’ve been dying to open. But use caution if the main course isn’t going to be a big ol’ bird or ham, smothered in sauce or gravy. If you’re serving more subdued and elegant dishes like a lightly roasted and seasoned turkey breast or alternative, I’d advise against bombarding them with a full-blown hop assault. This is a great opportunity for a beer where spicy phenolic compounds are brought forward by yeast to complement the dish instead.
Saisons and farmhouse ales are especially effervescent and lighter in body — they’re your best friends here. Traditional Czech pilsners and hoppier Northwest pilsners can also make great companions to some of the buttery and spicy flavors found in yummy stuffing!
If prime rib is on your menu instead of a bird, then conventional wisdom says go red or brown. English styles fit wonderfully here, but hoppier American brown and red ales work well, too — particularly if that beefy cut is drowning in gravy. I’d save the amber and red ales for a ham, but I don’t see how you could be disappointed either way. These malt-forward styles provide more depth in body, really contributing to the richness of both meats — and the taters and gravy — in a way perfectly described in one word: harmonious. And no, I haven’t forgotten sweet potatoes — they fall into this category as well. Like the late Chris Cornell said, “All my friends are brown and red.”
Before moving on to dessert, let’s talk side dishes. If the green bean casserole isn’t going to be particularly heavy, then leaning toward a pilsner or lighter pale ale is a smart choice. But who are we kidding? Does anyone make a green bean casserole that isn’t a full meal in itself? This is a feast after all! Northwest hop bombs shine here, as their bitterness and body can really stand up to the richness in this favorite dish. As I mentioned above, both mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes go great with red and brown ales but I’d hold off on the stouts and porters until the true sweet stuff shows up.
And now, for the finale. Finish strong! Go big with that barrel-aged imperial stout, old ale or barleywine. If you haven’t been aging something special in your cellar, then spring for that 20-plus dollar bottle of something decadent. Any good bottle shop will surely help you choose just the right one. I wouldn’t recommend this with apple pie, but if we’re talking cheesecake or chocolate anything, we’re on the same page. Feeling too full? No problem! These beers serve just fine as a dessert all by themselves. It’s once a year, there’s no reason to hold back. Cheers, and happy holidays! •