Oxford staffers Stephanie Porter, Tara Kennedy, and Lana Goldsmith are here to show you how to pair beer with cheer as we enter the holiday season. Below is the first of our posts that will be featured every Thursday this month.
Now that the calendar has turned the page to December, holiday season is in full swing. Aside from the lights and decorations flooding streets and buildings everywhere, this is the season of holiday parties! We will be celebrating The Oxford Companion to Beer through the month of December, and to kick off the month, we are turning our attention to hosting a holiday beer tasting.
First, a brief overview of the season’s beer history about the special brews available this season from contributor Chris J. Marchbanks.
Christmas ales is a catch-all descriptive phrase given to special beers made for Christmas and New Year celebrations, often with a high alcohol content 5.5%–14% ABV and marked by the inclusion of dark flavored malts, spices, herbs, and fruits in the recipe. A medieval instance of a Christmas ale was called “lambswool”—made with roasted apples, nutmegs, ginger, and sugar (honey)—so-called because of the froth floating on the surface. Today’s versions tend to be based on old ale, strong ale, and barley wine recipes, using cinnamon, cumin, orange, lemon, coriander, honey, etc. to create a warming, dark, and luscious festive beer. See old ales and barley wine. This tradition is closely related with the “wassail”, a mulled wine, beer, or cider usually consumed while caroling or gathering for the Christmas season. Most country breweries produce a Christmas or seasonal ale, some with long histories—notably in Belgium, England, Scandinavia, and the United States—which are usually matured for many months. There is no fixed recipe for these special ales as it is an opportunity for the brewer to expand boundaries and explore new tasty ingredients for Christmas, as the brewer’s gift to yuletide. The category includes some of the strongest beers brewed in the world including Samiclaus, which is a rich, aged Doppelbock with 14% ABV, originally brewed by Hurlimann in Switzerland but now in Austria at the Eggenberg Brewery. In the United States, Christmas Ale at Anchor Brewing (also known as “Our Special Ale”) contains a different blend of spices every year and helped spawn an interest in Christmas ales in the early days of the craft beer movement.
Since beer can have a cornucopia of flavors in every glass, you and your guests talk about the subtleties of each different beer. I might play a matching game where everyone writes down what they taste, and then the host can read the flavors from the label; or steam the labels off and have each person guess which label goes with which beer based on design. Either way, you will want to know how to create the perfect pour, and luckily, we know just the man to show you.
Now that you have the pour down, what can you serve your beer in? It turns out that beer glassware has a long history, and the glass you serve it in matters. Take a quick tour of some of the elaborate glasses beer used to be served in, and grab some ideas of what will best suit your chosen suds.
You may not be an expert, but you are definitely ready to pepper your guests with a little beer wisdom. So have fun, be safe, and enjoy good company over a delicious drink. And should you run into the questions about your choice of beverage, you can always refer them to Garrett.