Instead of wine, consider serving beer at the dinner table this holiday season. Here in the Bay Area, we're celebrating the peak of the craft-beer movement, and choices abound for food and beer pairings. Christmas ham and amber ale? Check. Latkes and blonde Belgian ale? Check. Beers have the aromas, flavors, diversity and food compatibility to keep you and your dinner guests in the holiday "spirit."
Unsure where to start? Read on for suggestions from local purveyors on how to pair brews with festive appetizers, main courses and desserts.
Getting the party started
At holiday get-togethers, a cheese plate is often served before dinner, and nothing goes better with cheese than beer, said Ryan Hummel, bar manager at Steins Beer Garden in Mountain View.
Beer and cheese have a natural affinity, he explained, because both begin with grass: wheat and barley in the case of beer, actual grass in the case of cheese. Hummel offered some winning combinations. Serve creamy Bries with a light witbier: a Belgian-style beer made from wheat, coriander and orange peel. A salty and piquant blue cheese pairs well with an India Pale Ale (IPA), a hoppy beer.
Hummel also borrows a recipe from Randy Mosher's "Tasting Beer: An Insider's Guide to the World's Greatest Drink."
"You can take a light, creamy Camembert cheese and pair it with a roasty brown ale," he said. "That kind of matches the creamy, melty cheese of a grilled cheese sandwich with the toasted bread."
The acidity and carbonation of beer helps cut through the fats in cheese and cleanses the palate, said Devin Roberts, the sales and marketing director of Freewheel Brewing Company in Redwood City. For a mild cheese, Roberts recommended a Pilsner (a pale lager), a wheat beer or Freewheel's K9 Kolsch: a delicate lager with floral and fruity notes that contrast the creaminess and fattiness of the cheese.
"For a stronger cheese like blue, you want something to match the flavor intensity," he said, adding that his go-to beers in this category include doppelbock -- a stronger version of the traditional German bock -- or Freewheel's Barleywine, a strong ale with fruity notes.
Pairings for main courses
When choosing which beers to serve with dinner, Hummel recommended brews that accentuate the food by offering complementary or contrasting flavors.
"You want to match the intensity of your beer to the intensity of your food," he said. "So if you're dealing with a roasted turkey, I'd say a Belgian-style dubbel is a perfect match."
The dubbel is a malty beer with some spices; it complements the stuffing and turkey but won't overpower the main course, Hummel said.
For the heavier Christmas ham or prime rib, choose a roasted malt or other dark beer to accentuate the flavor of oven-roasted meat. Amber or British-style brown ale make great choices, he said.
Unsurprisingly, beers brewed with spices pair well with dishes featuring cinnamon or ginger.
Guldem Tanyeri, co-founder of Palo Alto Brewing Company, is a fan of porters (the darkest style of beer) for hearty holiday meals. One of her favorites is the company's own Cool Beanz Coffee Porter, which is brewed with beans from Philz Coffee.
"I always suggest drinking what you like with your food," Tanyeri added.
If you're serving brisket during Hanukkah, Freewheel's Roberts suggested picking a beer that will "kick up the complexity" but also match the brisket's rich, salty flavor. Think beers with "malty and roasty flavors, or even a little more hoppiness," he said. Roberts' favorites include Freewheel's Big V Amber and Mind the Gap IPA.
Don't confine beer to the mug -- many dishes can be flavored with beer, said James Michaud, a home brewer and wine consultant at Beltramo's Wines & Spirits in Menlo Park.
Try marinating red meat in beer, Michaud suggested.
"I also like to use more robust beers when grilling or roasting meat, as the extra sugar content of these beers can help create a nice crust or glaze on the outside of the meat," he said.
Beer, much like wine, can be transformed into a sauce or gravy, Michaud added.
"The next time you want to make a sauce to put on top of a steak, try deglazing the pan with a malty barley wine or stout. The thicker texture of the beer will make for a nicely thick and rich sauce and the interplay of the roasted, nutty character of these beers and the malty sweetness pairs well with juicy steaks.
"These beers, being more robustly flavored, can also stand up well to other spices and seasonings, allowing you to tinker with some more familiar flavors in your sauces or marinades," Michaud explained.
For side dishes like cranberry sauce, Hummel suggested a sweeter beer like a bock to contrast with the acidity in the sauce, while Michaud recommended lambic: a strong sweet Belgian fruit beer.
For creamy dishes like mashed or scalloped potatoes, Hummel and Michaud said to choose a beer that will open up the starchy content. A high alcohol-by-volume (ABV) beer or a bitter beer will do the job, Hummel said.
"Sour beers pair very well with fatty, creamy dishes because they help cut through that creaminess," he added.
Latkes, the traditional Hanukkah potato pancakes often served with applesauce or sour cream, play nicely with lots of beers, Roberts said.
"You can't go wrong with any medium-bodied beer (with) fried potatoes," he noted. "Something with a touch of sweetness and crispness can act as a palate cleanser between bites."
His picks included a blonde Belgian ale or Freewheel's Pale Ale.
Rounding off the evening
Time for dessert -- but instead of washing down a batch of Christmas cookies with a glass of milk, try a mug of craft-brew suds, Hummel suggested.
A multitude of spicy beers will pair perfectly with gingerbread cookies, he said, among them Golden Road Brewing's Back Home Gingerbread Stout.
"The beer will pick up the similar flavors, and it's a very intense beer, so it won't be overwhelmed by the cookie."
Beer even pairs well with the most famous holiday dessert: fruitcake. Michaud recommends a Belgian dubbel: a rich beer with flavors of raisins, dates and spices.
Palo Alto Brewing Company's Tanyeri cautioned never to drink a beer sweeter than the dessert itself. "A bit of maltiness going toward sweetness can enhance your dessert experience," she said, adding that a German dunkelweizen (a dark wheat beer) or a brown ale will pair perfectly with desserts.
Feeling stuffed after dinner? You might try a ginger beer, like Royal Jamaican Alcoholic Ginger Beer, to aid in digestion.
For those who head straight to a whiskey or scotch after a meal, a high ABV barrel-aged beer is a quality substitute, Hummel said.
"Goose Island (Beer Company) makes a Bourbon County Stout, which is an amazing beer that is aged in bourbon barrels," he noted. "It's almost 15 percent alcohol and it's got a lot of rich vanilla and oaky notes that can fill in the place of a scotch or an after-dinner whiskey."
If you can get your hands on it, Samuel Adams' Utopias, an American strong ale-style beer that's 35 percent alcohol, is "very warming and has a great similar effect to having a small whiskey pour," Hummel said.
Of course, the holidays wouldn't be the same without a cup of hot chocolate or eggnog. One of the holiday cocktails at Steins is made from chilled homemade eggnog, spiced rum and Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel, a German doppelbock beer.
"It's got chocolate hints and a lot of caramel, which pairs well with the baking spices in eggnog," Hummel said.
Palo Alto Brewing Company's Oaxacan spiced stout combines the comfort of a hot chocolate with the kick of a cocktail. "It tastes like a spicy mocha," Tanyeri said. The dark, chocolaty, spicy beer was created with the help of brewer Saul Reyes of Tied House in Mountain View, she added.
These days, Tanyeri pointed out, "There are many breweries playing around with flavor profiles, so you can have your cake and drink it too."