During the winter months I enjoy the company of friends with whom I share the joys of gourmet food, exceptional beers, and good cheer. Sometimes we do this with a formal or informal beer tasting event. Beer tastings are a lot of fun. They are easy to plan and prepare, and they can be customized to any set of tastes. All one really needs is a love of great beer, a sense of adventure, and some acquaintances who are as eager as you are to experience a gastronomical treat.
Planning the Event
The first thing to consider when planning a beer tasting is determining what size your group will be. I have recently worked with groups as small as six and as large as sixteen. Next, consider your budget, both for beer and for food. One of my upcoming events will feature a beer budget of only $60, plus about $20 worth of crackers, cheeses, and chocolates. In contrast, I worked an event last summer in which I served over $200 worth of beer to a dozen people.
You also need to decide whether the theme of the event is more about beer education, or whether it is just a celebration, such as a birthday or anniversary party. A beer education event will emphasize learning about a particular beer style or several beers from a particular brewery; it will feature less alcohol and it can be held in the middle of the week. A party will have a more relaxed atmosphere; it should probably be held on a weekend afternoon or evening and the hosts should encourage guests to have designated drivers. Finally, you should decide what accompanying food or snacks you want to serve, and how much. These can be simple and economical, but I have worked with clients who have planned and executed exceptionally delicious multi-course dinners in which I helped the host pair each course with a world-class beer or two.
These Are a Few of My Favorite Things
My favorite beers for winter tastings are Belgian Holiday Ales. They have the virtues of being complex, festive, and eminently easy to pair with gourmet foods, including holiday hors d’oeuvres and desserts. They can be served before and after Christmas; in fact I have a tasting event featuring them planned for mid-January. Serve these beers with the reverence you would reserve for your best wines. You might be surprised to discover that many of these beers actually go better with fancy cheeses and desserts than wines. Belgian Holiday Ales are often packaged in corked-and-caged champagne bottles. This is not an affectation: such beers are bottle reconditioned with an extra dose of yeast in the champagne method and they acquire greater complexity after a year or two in the bottle.
I usually serve Belgian Holiday Ales with at least three different cheeses, and sometimes as many as five. A quality Brie, a Blue cheese, and one “stinky” washed rind cheese always work well. I also recommend a first-rate cheddar, gouda, and chevre (goat cheese). My next tasting event will feature Chaumes, a common but assertive French washed rind cheese. I’ll also serve Maytag Blue from Iowa, one of America’s best blue cheeses.
Belgian Holiday Ales go really well with chocolates, and I often choose Lindt chocolate bars, the ones with relatively high percentages of cocoa and the ones with oranges and black currants. I break them into small chunks and place them onto the middle of a platter. High-cocoa chocolates complement the fruity aromas and flavors featured in many of the Belgian Holiday Ales. Gourmet chocolate truffles also work well, as do brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and fruit cobblers. Sweeter beers actually pair better with the assertive cheeses, while the spicier versions of Belgian Holiday Ales go best with desserts.
This Season’s Best Beers
The first Belgian Holiday Ale I wish to recommend is Corsendonk Christmas, an old favorite that I haven’t had for a few years. This year’s version is better-than-ever; it may just be the quintessential Belgian Holiday Ale. It pours a deep, dark brown with ruby hues and a thick, eggshell-colored head. The aromas are wonderfully complex, ranging from dark chocolate to dark fruits (plums and cherries) to pumpkin pie spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and allspice). The flavors remind me first and foremost of chocolate malted milk balls, but there are also notes of mince pie before a little black pepper—from the hops—on a relatively dry finish. As it warms it resembles chocolate cake, perhaps with a few cherry notes, and just a trace of citrusy hops. It is medium-bodied and the 8.1 percent alcohol by volume (abv) is hard to detect. Corsendonk Christmas is contract brewed by Brasserie du Bocq, a small, family-owned brewery in the town of Purnode in the French-speaking province of Namur. All the Corsendonk beers are monastic ales, meaning they are not brewed by monks but they are allowed to use the name of an existing monastery for marketing purposes.
My next recommendation, which I just tried for the first time this week, is Page 24 Noël, which is technically not a Belgian Holiday Ale because it from France. It is a Bière de Garde (beer to store) from the Saint-Germain Brewery of Aix-noulette, a small farming village 8 kilometers west of Lens in the Pas-de-Calais department, very near the Belgian border. The brewery has been in operation since 2003 and its beers, which include bottle-reconditioned farmhouse ales, have won numerous awards. Page 24 Noël is bright amber in color with a half inch of frothy white head. It also has good head retention, and some suds stick to the inside of the glass to form the classic “Belgian lace.” On the nose there are spicy hops, along with earthy and nutty notes. On the palate there is rich, caramel malt, hints of pecans and walnuts, the mineral notes common to Bières de Garde, and some peppery hops on the finish. The very appealing nutty flavor in the middle becomes more evident as it warms. I enjoyed it with Asian pears, a warm baguette, and blue cheese. I highly recommend this intriguing, easy-to-drink, 6.9 percent abv beer. It helps to confirm my tongue-in-cheek rule that the French do make good beer, provided the brewery is within sight of Belgium.
Another beer that is new for me this year is Vicaris Winter, a Strong Dark Ale from the Dilewyns Brewery, which is located in the village of Grembergen, in the municipality of Dendermonde, in East Flanders. Its brewer, Anne-Catherine Dilewyns, is in her mid-twenties and is regarded as one of the rising stars in the brewing business in Belgium. Vicaris Winter is dark brown in color with a beige head that stays around. The aromas are caramel and roasted malt, plus raisins, figs, and anise. Brown sugar, dark chocolate, and molasses dominate the flavors. There is just the right amount of subtle hop bitterness and the 10 percent abv is well hidden. This is a delicious, well-balanced beer, slightly on the sweet side. I’m really looking forward to trying another.
My next Belgian Holiday Ale recommendation is an old favorite, 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. The spices are particularly prominent on the nose in this year’s version, with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and allspice all competing for attention. The flavors are also spicy, with dark chocolate, plums, and a little citrus also coming through. It is rich and smooth and definitely warming at 10.0 percent abv. I have visited the St Bernardus Berwery in Belgium, and while I was there I learned that the Christmas Ale, my favorite among their many wonderful beers, is only sold in the United States. Belgians can only sample it at the annual Kerstbierfest in December. As I look at the attractive green label on this beer, and the jolly face of the trademark monk wearing a Santa cap, I feel truly blessed.
My final Belgian Holiday Ale recommendation is another old favorite, 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 10.5 percent abv. This one can certainly be paired with assertive gourmet cheeses, but it also goes well with a cake with hot chocolate sauce.
A Little Self-Promotion
In the coming weeks I will be conducting 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. 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.
If this sounds like something you would enjoy, please send me an email or give me a call. It would be my pleasure to make your acquaintance, and help you and your friends expand your knowledge and enjoyment of the world of great beers.
Kendall Staggs is “The Beer Prof”
Kendall, “The Beer Prof”