Many chose to open a large meal with a light dish. If you plan garden greens and vinaigrette dressing, for instance, look for a thirst-quenchingly tart and light-bodied, Berliner Weiss to pour alongside it. Similarly at home with a salad is the relatively rare Belgian gueuze, another effervescent brew with hints of citrus and rhubarb that finishes tart and dry.
Should your first course consist of fresh fruit or crustaceans (shrimp, prawns, or lobster), consider serving witbier (Flemish for “white” beer, the sweeter and more complex Belgian cousin to German Weissbier, also known as bière blanche). Spicy citrus notes in the aroma and flavor, together with its mildly sweet, malty palate, would safely and satisfyingly join such a delicate first course.
Succulent veal pairs well with a subtly sweet, pale golden cream ale; while slightly more gamy lamb would be done more justice by a bronze, generously malted, German Altbier (“old beer”). India Pale Ales (aggressively hopped pale ales often called IPAs) are perfect foils for roast beef and brisket. It’s a virtual requirement that hearty steak dinners be accompanied by a robust dark beer in the style of porter, stout, or Schwarzbier (black beer). Sometimes opaque and often dry, these roasty flavored brews are also perfect company for the charred and smoky taste when your beefsteak is broiled or barbecued. The mildly smoky character of a German Steinbier (“stone beer”) or a semi-sweet and chocolaty Munich Dunkel (dark lager) would nicely suit a liberally glazed ham shank. If you choose to roast a bird this year, please consult my suggestions for complementary beers in my article about Thanksgiving beer pairing.
When seafood is on your menu, be sure to draw a mental line between lobster, crab, shrimp, or whitefish and the more assertive mollusks (clams, mussels, and oysters), salmon, or herring. For the more delicate former, a crisp, dry, golden lager such as a Pilsner should be offered; for the flavorful latter, a well-balanced pale ale is a more appropriate choice. If the salmon or herring are smoked, and you’re in a daring mood, try serving them with a German Rauchbier (smoked beer); but be forewarned that these acrid beers may be considered too austere by some. It bears noting that in England oysters and dry stout are considered a classic culinary combination.
Christmas desserts run the gamut, but rich and/or creamy fruit or chocolate creations seem to be the order of the day. Sweeter, heavier beers are best suited to such concoctions. “Estery” — fruity and flowery — pale strong ales such as Belgian Tripels work well with fruity treats. So would spicy Belgian strong golden ales (occasionally labeled grand cru and spiced with coriander and Curaçao oranges). The perfect matches for chocolate baked goods are darker, roastier porters and stouts.
A word for those who pass candy at the end of a holiday meal: Explore the world of well-aged Belgian fruit-infused lambics. These are tart and sparkling beers to which macerated fruit (most often cherry or raspberry) has been added during fermentation. If these prove impossible to find, German Doppelbocks (dark, malty brews of considerable strength 6 – 8%), or rich Scotch ales (sweet and viscous beers with a mildly smoky backdrop) are full flavored “malternatives.”
A Word about Wassail
In the realm of tradition, wassail is punch, a concoction made of strong ale laden with spices, sugar, and floating pieces of fruit -such as roasted crab apple. To most modern brewers, however, wassail is a special winter beer to which has been added any number of spices or flavorings. These often include cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger, vanilla, anise, and even essence of spruce, among others. You may drink these wassails chilled, but serving them slightly warmed not only brings out more of their spicy flavor, it can also bring a glow to your cheeks.