We don’t leave sherry out by the fireplace for Santa on December 24 in our house: not that I dislike an Oloroso or Amontillado myself under the right circumstances, but this is a beer-oriented home, and anyway I reckon the old boy would like something refreshingly hoppy after several tens of million glasses of sweet-and-sticky and around 5,000 tons of mince pie as he and the reindeer fly west dropping off the presents.
This year I thought, as he lives in the Far North, Father Christmas might like a beer from close to home: Haandbryggeriet’s excellent Norwegian Wood, a tribute to Norway’s farmhouse brewing traditions, which is made with juniper berries and juniper twigs, and smoked malt along with Munich, chocolate and crystal malts.
Odd Nordland’s book on Norwegian home brewing, Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway, is one of my all-time favourite beer books, with its incredibly detailed mapping of the different methods used by Norwegian farmers to make beer. Norwegian Wood is probably the closest most of us will get to sampling real Norwegian homebrew, but it’s a good introduction. Neither the juniper nor the smokiness are pushed too far forward: it’s a lovely, well-balanced dark ale with an attractive tang that almost insists on being drunk with tasty snacks such as smoked salmon or that strange brown Norwegian cheese, Gjetost. I’d probably better leave some of that out rather than the mince pie: if Santa doesn’t like it, Rudolph can have it with his carrot …
Christmas is a good time to be a beer drinker, since there’s no part of the traditional British celebration where you can’t enjoy a beer. I laugh myself silly reading articles by wine writers on what wines to have with Christmas dinner, as they struggle to find any sort of match to the turkey before sighing and admitting that sauvignon blanc is about the best you’ll do. Personally I think turkey is too often itself a waste of space, being frequently dry and tasteless, but I can name you at least three or four different beer styles that will leave you, after the dindon, merrily on high.
Strong porter is what I’ll be having this year: the chocolate/coffee flavours of a stout or porter will complement the roast bird, and the crunchy roast vegetables, and also the baked ham that is an essential pairing with the turkey. I’ll probably have a small glass of Gale’s Prize Old Ale as well, since its sourness is a good match to any good gravy-meat-and-veg meal: I’ve said this before: British beer and British food evolved alongside each other, and one naturally pairs up with the other. But if you can’t get POA, a Belgian geuze makes a similar match.
You can also try a not-too-hoppy IPA or bitter: (too much hop will swamp the food) any classic British bitter, such as Tim Taylor’s Landlord, or Adnam’s bitter, or Marston’s Pedigree, will sit very well on the Christmas table. Talking of Adnam’s, Broadside is another good match, darker and with a touch more caramel sweetness underneath.
Equally a German wheat beer has the right stuff for stuffing and turkey, particularly a Dunkel Weitzen, with, again, those roasty, chocolaty overtones, and while I haven’t tried them together I’d bet a dark lager from Franconia or the Czech Republic would sit well with Christmas dinner, too. Rauchbier doesn’t normally float my boat, but I suspect that would match up with turkey too, and I’m sure the Norwegian Wood I mentioned earlier is another Christmas dinner winner.
We’re going to my friend the cheesebuyer’s house for Christmas lunch this year, and since, like me, he’s married to an Irishwoman the starter will be smoked salmon. In the past, matching beer with smoked salmon was not much easier than matching wine with smoked salmon: this is a dish from the spirits belt. However, the rise of cask-aged beers, particularly whisky-cask aged beers, now gives a chance to have a beer to partner the salmon and soda bread. I suspect the stout-based whisky-aged beers, such as Harviestoun’s Ola Dubh, might be too much even for a well-oaked Irish fish, but I’m looking forward to trying out how Fuller’s Brewer’s Reserve, matured in single malt casks, stands up to salmon on Thursday.
I’m bringing the Christmas pudding: it’s been maturing away since last year. Sweet, strong beers match dark, heavy fruity puddings very well: Highgate Old Ember, for example, a “honeyed brown ale”, or McEwan’s Champion, in the “Scotch Ale” style. You could also try a proper “chocolate” stout such as Young’s, or a decently sour framboise.
Finally, when the plates have been cleared, and the trouser belt is creaking dangerously, it’s time for something powerful. Fire up the cheeseboard and pop the top off an extreme beer: this is where hugely hoppy numbers such as Sierra Nevada’s Winter Celebration can come out: just the right tool for stimulating your flagging appetite so you can give your stomach more punishment …