Kendall Staggs, aka the Beer Prof
Beer Historian and Tasting Guide
Christmas may be weeks away, but it’s never too early for me to start craving my favorite style of beers, Belgian Holiday Ales. I certainly won’t wait until Christmas to enjoy them. I won’t even wait until December 15. On that day, the annual Kerstbier-festival will begin in the town of Essen, Belgium. Over three thousand beer lovers will have an opportunity to sample over one hundred different Belgian Holiday Ales. I wish I could join them this year!
I won’t even wait until Saint Nicholas Day, December 6, to taste my favorites. In Belgium, tradition holds that on the eve of the saint’s day, Saint Nicholas brings sweets and other gifts to well-behaved children. In Wallonia, the French-speaking southern part of Belgium, children are also told that they may be visited by Le Père Fouettard, “the whipping father.” He’s a sinister-looking, scruffy man in black who is armed with a whip or a bundle of switches who dispenses lumps of coal or floggings to naughty boys and girls.
Fortunately for me, I live in Corvallis, where there have been no reported sightings of Père Fouettard, but plenty of sightings of Belgian Holiday Ales. Besides, I’ve been good. Belgian Holiday Ales go well with a wide variety of holiday snacks. I recommend pairing them with fruit, washed-rind cheeses, and dark chocolates. I urge you to pour these beers in goblets, which will allow you to appreciate their rich aromas, and serve them at cellar temperature—about 55 degrees—which will accentuate their full range of flavors. Also, be sure to serve them in moderation because many of them are quite strong, with alcohol by volume (abv) of 10 or more.
They’re All Great
My recommendations for Belgian Holiday Ales include some old favorites and a few beers that are new to our area. Some of them are sweet, some of them are tart, and some of them are spicy. The one characteristic they share is they are delicious examples of Belgian brewing artistry. Rather than rank the beers in an order of preference, I will describe them in the order I would present them at a beer tasting event.
The first beer I would serve is La Moneuse Special Winter Ale, from Brasserie de Blaugie in Dour, a small town in the French-speaking province of Hainaut. It’s a Saison—a farmhouse ale—and according to the importing company, Shelton Brothers, it’s from Belgium’s smallest family brewery. It pours a cloudy amber color with garnet hues, with a thick beige head that sticks around, literally clinging to the class after each sip, leaving behind what beer lovers call “Belgian lace.” The aromas are almost all fruity, reminiscent of grapefruit, raspberry, and green apple, with just a touch of mustiness and floral hops. The flavors start with a touch of sweetness that quickly gives way to a cranberry tartness. A little caramel makes an appearance in the middle, and modest but sufficient hop bitterness finishes the flavors. It’s highly carbonated, and has a prickly mouth feel. It leaves behind a little tartness in the aftertaste. This is a relatively strong Saison (8 percent abv) but lighter in body than most Christmas beers. Therefore I think it’s a good one with which to warm up the party.
The second beer I would serve is La Rullés Cuvée Meilleurs Voeux—now there’s a mouthful—from Brasserie Artisinale De Rullés, which is located in a little town in the Ardennes region of southeast Belgium, near the French border. The name in French means “Best Wishes Vintage.” It has a medium-brown color and a beige head that stays put. Its aromas are lightly roasted malt, cola, and dark fruits. The flavors start out with toasted bread, brown sugar, and raisins, then change to more of a citrusy middle that is reminiscent of oranges and tangerines. It finishes clean and well-balanced. It’s an intriguing beer, and at 7.3 percent abv, it’s not too strong. This would be a good one to pair with apples and creamy brie cheese.
The third beer I would serve is Delirium Noël, from the hundred-year-old Hughe Brewery located just east of Ghent. This beer, like the brewery’s flagship beer Delirium Tremens and its darker cousin Delirium Nocturnum, is packaged in a striking bottle that is painted white to look like it’s made of ceramic. The label features pink elephants wearing Santa caps and engaged in winter sports like skating, skiing, or sledding. The beer is a beautiful maroon color with a long-lasting beige head. The aromas and flavors are fruity, but, contrary to my expectation, they are less intense than in the Delirium Tremens, which has an over-the-top fruit salad quality. My senses detect notes of cherry, plum, and toffee, with mild hop bitterness and a fairly aggressive carbonation. I’m reminded of candied apples. Often times Belgian Holiday Ales come close to overdoing the fruity or spicy character. I’m intrigued to find one that is more subtle and better balanced than its year-round counterpart. Nevertheless, Delirium Noël is dessert in the bottle, and fairly strong (10 percent abv). I would serve it with an assertive washed-rind cheese such as Chimay, which is made by the same monks the produce the famous Chimay Trappist Ales.
The fourth beer in my line-up is Affligem Noël, from Brouwerij De Smedt in Opwijk, a little Flemish town northwest of Brussels. The brewery is a small commercial operation that since 1999 has been owned by the brewing giant Heineken. But the Affligem abbey still owns the brand, grows the barley used in the malt, oversees the quality of the beers, and receives royalties. Affligem Noël is dark brown with chestnut hues. It pours with a fluffy, light tan head and creates plenty of classic “Belgian lace.” It has sugar-and-spice smells that include apricots and plums, plus cinnamon and nutmeg. The flavors include milk chocolate, caramel, sugar cookies, dates, and cherries. A light, peppery hop bitterness shows up at the end, and I can detect a little warmth from the alcohol (9 percent abv). I would serve banana bread and chocolates with this one.
The fifth beer I would serve is Kerstmutske, from the relatively new Brouwerij Slaapmutske, which is located in the small town of Melle, near Ghent. Dany De Smet, a former brewing engineer for the Huyghe Brewery, is the owner and brewer. Slaapmutske literally means “Sleeping Cap” in Flemish, and like the English word “nightcap,” it is an expression for the last drink before going to bed. Kerstmutske, or “Christmas cap,” is the name of De Smet’s holiday beer. It’s dark brown and opaque, and produces some foamy white lacing. The aromas are subtle but complex, and they feature notes of figs, raisins, clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The flavors evoke walnut brownies and cherries. It’s medium-bodied and has a creamy mouth feel. The finish is slightly sweet. With successive sips I find myself thinking that if Mr. Rogers were here, he would say, “Can you say chocolate? Sure you can!” It’s not too strong (7.4 percent abv), and it begs to be paired with a rich dessert.
The sixth beer in my lineup is St Bernardus Christmas Ale, from the St Bernardus Brewery of Watou, in West Flanders, just a few miles from the French border. It pours medium brown with a thick, off-white head. It smells like chocolate and dark fruits such as raisins and prunes, with hints of clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mild hops. It tastes delicious, with chocolate, caramel, cherries, plums, and a little citrus coming through. It is rich and smooth and definitely warming at 10.0 percent abv. In July of 2011, I was fortunate enough to visit the St. Bernardus Brewery and stay at a wonderful bed-and-breakfast, the former home of the head brewer, located next door. Unlimited samples of all of the different St Bernardus beers were available for the guests without any additional charge. But one beer was missing: the St Bernardus Christmas Ale. It turns out that the only time one can have it in Belgium is at the Kerstbierfestival; otherwise it is only sold in the United States. As I look at the label of this beer, and the jolly face of the trademark monk wearing a Santa cap, I feel truly blessed.
The seventh and last beer in my tasting is Gouden Carolus Noël, from Brouwerij Het Anker (the Anchor Brewery), which is located north of Brussels in the town of Mechelen. It traces its roots back the year 1369, making it by far the oldest brewery on this list. Its Monastic Ales are called Gouden Carolus, and they are named after the gold coins struck with the image of Charles V, the 16th-century head of the Holy Roman Empire and one of the most powerful rulers in European history. Gouden Carolus Noël features lots of spices in the aroma and flavor. It pours medium brown and somewhat murky, and it leaves a generous Belgian lace of foam on the sides of the glass. The nose has notes of orange, pineapple, coriander, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. The flavor reminds me of chocolate and malted milk balls, with different spices sneaking through with each sip. As it warms more plum and cherry flavors emerge, and the patient beer drinker is rewarded with a more complex and satisfying brew. There is little hop flavor or hop bitterness. This is another strong one at 10 percent abv. This one can certainly be paired with assertive gourmet cheeses, but it would also go well with a cake with hot chocolate sauce.
Hire the Beer Prof!
In the coming weeks, I hope to be able to conduct some beer tastings featuring these and other holiday favorites. In the past dozen years, I have served as the instructor and master of ceremonies for over fifty beer tasting events. A beer tasting can be a modest gathering of six people or a more formal affair for fifteen or more guests. It can last 90 minutes or up to three hours. It can involve five or six two-ounce samples for a mid-week event or seven to ten four-ounce samples at a weekend party. The beers can be accompanied by a few snacks or paired with a full complement of gourmet foods.
I provide the beers and a packet of information concerning the history and the stories behind the breweries, the beer styles, and the beers themselves. The sessions are always informal; I usually introduce the beers and then answer any questions that come up. I play the part of Professor Beer, but the emphasis is on having fun, and everyone seems to have a great time at these beer tastings. My fees are negotiable; in fact I don’t put on beer tastings to get rich. They afford me an opportunity to do the two things I enjoy doing most: teach people about great beer and enjoy my favorite beers in the world. I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you at one of my events soon.
Or call: 920-609-9919