The holidays are a time for coming together as friends and relatives gather to share fellowship and feasting. Traditional foods are often a centerpiece of these celebrations. And where there is food, there must be drink. While many reach for wine to enliven their meals, beer can bring an equally festive mood. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Festivus, the proper beer will add to the enjoyment of any traditional dish.
A Christmas feast often involves some kind of roasted poultry — turkey, duck or goose. Alongside the bird sit a slew of seasonal sides like sweet potatoes, winter squash and sage-seasoned stuffing. The mellow, sweet maltiness of a heller bock beer is the perfect accompaniment to this entire spread. “Hell” means “light” in German. Accordingly, a heller bock is lighter colored than its amber to brown bock bier cousins.
Heller bock can be hard to find, but one that I have seen in the Twin Cities is Schwaben Bräu Heller Bock. This deep-golden German lager is driven by the flavor of fresh bread with subtle honey and toast overtones. Restrained bitterness and low, spicy hop flavor provide a counterbalance. Sturdy enough to stand up even to a rich roast goose, it will tie in to everything on the plate from the crispy turkey skin and sweet dark meat to the savory seasoning of bread stuffing. It’s perfect with roasted squash.
Colorado Wild Sage Mountain Saison from Denver’s Crooked Stave Brewery offers an interesting exploration of complement and contrast. Vaporous aromatics from actual sage create a direct link to the typical herb mix in the food. The link is reinforced by earthy and peppery fermentation flavors. Bright lemony notes and refreshingly tart acidity will cut through some of the richer elements of the spread. It’s a light-bodied, beer though, so be careful about pairing it with anything too heavy.
Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, is celebrated with eight days of enthusiastic eating. Traditional dishes skew toward comfort, with the classic being latkes, the crispy fried potato pancakes. This simply delicious dish calls for an equally unpretentious beer. A pale lager is the perfect choice.
My go-to here would be Dandy Lager from Indeed Brewing Co. This sunny lager is slightly malt-forward, with lovely touches of toasted grain and corn that are a perfect match for the latke’s golden crust. Bitterness is sturdy enough to cut through the frying oil, but won’t overwhelm the light flavors of the pancake. Peppery and floral hop flavors complement the onion, chive or other seasonings that might be used.
If your Hanukkah tastes lean more to those fried jelly-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot, then reach for an oatmeal stout like Black H2O from the Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery. The beer’s roasted malts provide the same sweetness-cutting, bitter contrast as a cup of coffee. Hints of dark chocolate play nicely with the fruit filling. Oats give the beer a velvety texture and light, doughy character that parallels the fried dough. Black H2O is available only at the brewpub, so stop by and grab a growler to take home.
For celebrants less religiously inclined, there is Festivus., an unusual holiday, popularized by the 1990s television sitcom “Seinfeld,” which includes its own signature dish. Although it’s difficult to tell exactly what is on the platter brought to the table in the Festivus episode, the common consensus among fans is for spaghetti noodles topped with meatloaf. Before you scoff, give it a try. With the right meatloaf recipe and a good tomato sauce, it’s actually quite tasty.
This quirky, unsophisticated dish calls out for an unassuming brew such as dark American lager. I like Schell’s Dark for the job. Caramel sweetness counters any acidity in the tomato sauce. Touches of toasted bread crust take on the browning of the meat. A low-level background of spicy hop flavor and gentle bitterness offer contrasting notes without getting in the way. Dark, raisin flavors fill in the cracks.
If you want to go full-on Minnesotan, Grain Belt Nordeast would also do the trick. It’s a bit sweeter with less bread-crust character, but offers similar complements and contrasts with the same lowbrow appeal.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.