For many, Christmas lunch is an immense puzzle of combinations: finding the right colors for your decorations, tableware and clothes, complex calculations to sit your guests at the table without causing any diplomatic issue...
Craft beer lovers, however, have another priority: as we have Christmas beers - and no Christmas wines or distillates - why not surprise friends and family by bringing beer to the festive table?
Christmas beers can be very different in terms of aromas, taste, special ingredients, body and alcohol content. So let’s move beyond the outdated rule of classic sommellerie, according to which any drink other than wine should only be drank before or after your meal.
It’s much more rewarding to exploit the variety and versatility of beers, full of so many aromas and mouth feels (fizziness, alcohol content...) to support the most diverse combinations. We can play on similarities and contrasts with the taste of a dish to create exciting and imaginative pairings.
Even if the absence of binding rules for the style and the creativity of master brewers have generated some IPAs or sour Christmas beers, most are highly alcoholic beers with a prevalence of sweet tastes and, often, the addition of spices or other special ingredients.
Following the golden rule of matching the intensity of the beer and the dish, the characteristics of Christmas beers call for opulent, succulent and rich recipes with persistent tastes,
Desserts - behind their sometimes innocent appearance - are among the most intensely flavored preparations, and therefore require powerful enough beers to compete on equal terms.
Classic yeast-leavened cakes such as pandoro or panettone go well with strong light or amber colored beers of Belgian inspiration. These tend to be sweet, but with a good amount of dryness, and are characterized by the scents of fermentation, such as yellow flesh fruit and candied and dehydrated fruit. The alcohol content and the nice carbonation counterbalance the buttery richness of the cakes.
A Christmas beer with the same characteristics can also successfully support cheese like Roquefort, Blue Stilton, mature Cheddar or Piave Vecchio, and dishes like grilled beef ribs with almond sauce or a fiery vindaloo curry.
If the beer, instead, presents scents of caramelized sugar, nuts, dry figs and cocoa, pairings are possible with hazelnut or almond chocolate pralines, panforte from Siena or gingerbread, or with amazing cheese like Comté, Storico Ribelle or Bagoss.
Any presence of spices - such as cloves, aniseed or cinnamon, which amplify the fermentation scents - creates a connection with slow-cooked stews and umami tastes, as well as classic Lasagna Bolognese or other dishes with meat ragout. Once again, the alcohol content and the carbonation counterbalance the opulence of the dish and clean the mouth from the rich sauces.
If roasted malts or coffee, cocoa, chocolate and licorice are among the additional ingredients of the beer, you can go for soft desserts, semifreddo or ice cream with similar aromas. Another idea is to create recipes with intentional taste connections, such as a pasta dish with bitter cocoa, mascarpone and a crunchy element, such as pistachio or hazelnuts. Or you could try and complement the two elements of the pairing with, for instance, a beer with cocoa and a meringue cake, or a tarte tatin or pear pie.
A drier Christmas beer, based for instance on a Saison from Wallonia, opens the door to pairings with fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna - both cooked and raw - shellfish and pasta dishes with fish (but no tomato sauce). Any presence of earthy and rustic notes offers the possibility to pair the beer with mushroom dishes, such as a soup or classic vol-au-vent.
Of course, Christmas beers can be enjoyed alone and with food all year long. Experimenting without following strict rules is always the best rule!