Beer Here written by Glenn BurnSilver for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner/minernews.com
FAIRBANKS – When the holiday season rolls around, so do specialty beers. Typically, these fall into two categories: Winter warmers and spiced beers. Both are excellent alone or at meals.
This edition of Beer Here examines holiday spice beers and makes food suggestions for each.
Spiced beers are brewed year round in Belgium but get special treatment during the holidays. One such beer is Tsjeeses Belgian Christmas Ale. While the label doesn’t give away the exact spices added, this cloudy (from residual yeast), golden brew has plenty going on.
It pours well with a strong head and lacing on the glass, which releases some floral qualities. Besides the pleasant yeastiness, there is a slight citrus aroma and flavor coupled with a maltly sweetness, sour fruit and clove-like spiciness. There are some phenol esters present as well — not surprising as the beer clocks in at 10 percent alcohol by volume — adding a warming affect.
Serve this one with duck or other “gamey” meat. Coming from Belgium’s Brasserie a Vapeur is Chochonnette, a beer that required some time to ascertain what was happening. But once I figured out, my smile was from more than the warming, 9 percent ABV. Chochonnette is an unusual ale that might be a blend (the label doesn’t say) of an oud, or sour brown, and classic ale. The sourness is subtle but matches well with coriander, grains of paradise and, maybe, cinnamon and/or clove (my taste; label doesn’t clarify). There is hint of twiggy earthiness too, but this may a result of the bacteria used to impart the sourness. This beer would be excellent with deep-fried turkey, strong meat flavors or even salmon with mint aioli.
Another sour beer in the Belgian style, hailing from Canada, is Unibroue’s Quelque Chose. This seems more like a cherry soda than a beer, but it is nonetheless intriguing. A rich maroon color, the brew is a combination of dark ale and brown ale brewed with cherries. There is almost no head to the pour (no matter how hard you try), but there is a nice warming flavor of cinnamon, clove, vanilla and maybe even a little tobacco. Let this one warm about 30 minutes before pouring, for an enhanced effect. Pair it before dinner with baked brie with brown sugar on top and wheat crackers or after the meal with dark chocolate — either a high cocoa content bar or rich torte.
Juniper berries are a popular addition in some Alaska beers, such as Midnight Sun’s Cohoho Imperial IPA. This beer carries plenty of hops (as an IPA should), but this only serves to heighten the essence of pine imparted by the berries. There is plenty of bitterness from the mega-hop infusion, which diminishes some of the weaker flavors, though grapefruit and a sugary/honey sweetness do stand out as well. Take a cue from the Santa hatwearing fish on the label — lightly peppered salmon would be an excellent match for this beer.
Another beer made with juniper “twigs” is Huvita Arctic Circle Ale, from Finland. This dark brown ale is malty sweet but zesty with spices. It has a nice body from rye malt, which holds the many flavors in place — sweet, spicy, earthy, piney and woody. “Inspired by Finland’s northern nature and ancient brewing traditions” (according to the label), this is a real palate pleaser. Match this with other strong flavors, such as a hearty roast or reindeer chili.
If a sweeter, maltier brew with the spices held in check is preferred, Denmark’s Amager Julebry serves that purpose.
A rich, heavy malt-bomb, this black beer is very sweet, even to the point of graininess. It’s nice, but the spiciness — generated from Belgian yeast and pungent Pacific Gem hops — can’t break through. If anything, that spice appears at the back of the tongue at the last moment. Serve this one with strong-flavored dishes already packed with spices, like a garlic- and rosemarycoated turkey. Many of these brews only come around once a year, so if there’s something extremely pleasing, it’s best to stock up. And the brewers will like that, too, because, in many ways, these beers are their gifts to the beer drinker.
Thanks to my friends at Gold Hill Imported Beers and Fine Wines for providing this sampling of the holiday brews.
Features editor Glenn BurnSilver is the former associate editor at Brew Your Own magazine, where he still contributes timely articles on beer and the making of beer.