Sometimes the best part of the holiday is receiving a gift you’d never buy for yourself. That’s how Lew Bryson turned a confirmed wine drinker into a beer lover. And his wife learned the gift of great beer is never a faux pas.
There is only one thing that Lew Bryson likes better than beer, and that is sharing great beer and food with friends and family. Why else would he have so confidently dared to bring beer to his wife’s (then girlfriend) boss’s at-home holiday party? He surmised correctly that the guy just hadn’t experienced the good stuff yet.
The gamble paid off. The boss was impressed and the girlfriend – Cathy, became his wife. And Lew, through written word and deed, has made a distinguished career as a beer & food evangelist ever since.
Here’s Bryson’s story followed by three beer-centric holiday menus he’s created for all of us to savor and enjoy.
I first took “fancy” beer to a holiday dinner back in the late 1980s. I was courting my wife at the time, and we got an invite to her boss’s holiday dinner gala. She warned me that he was a wine connoisseur and would be opening bottles all night.
Why not give him a chance to see why beer excited me the same way? I got a nice gift box and padded two big bottles of Chimay in it, a Grand Réserve and a Cinq Cents, then wrapped a red bow around it. The big bottles, with their caged corks and fancy labels (partly in French!), intrigued him. They were both open within half an hour, and thirty years later, he still talks about how they opened his eyes to beer. Special beers can make a very special impression.
There’s no better time than the holidays to enjoy special beers and to share that enjoyment. Thirty years ago, the holidays were an exciting time for beer, even though we would only see about two dozen special bottlings. Today, with over 6,000 breweries open in the U.S., the number of holiday specialty beers is staggering. It’s the details that make holiday entertaining so special and memorable. Here are three complete menus I’ve served friends and family at my house that should help take the guesswork out of deciding what to serve with what. From me to you, please accept these suggestions designed to bestow upon you, culinary confidence and peace of mind entertaining. Happy Holidays.
Three Menus From Lew
There are three cookbooks I turn to this time of year for ideas to make my holiday meals special. They’re from the traditions of three great beer cultures: Belgium, Germany and America. There’s Everybody Eats Well in Belgium, by Ruth Van Waerebeek, New German Cooking, by Jeremy & Jessica Nolen, and The American Craft Beer Cookbook, by John Holl. Each one can make your holidays very special indeed.
Everybody Eats Well in Belgium isn’t in print anymore, but Amazon has plenty of lightly used copies available for a few bucks; grab one! Belgian cuisine was designed around beer: dubbels, tripels, sours, witbiers, lambics, pale ales. Similarly, the food ranges from full-bodied, satisfying farmer food to delicately French-influenced dishes for the tables of judges and bankers.
Start with some tart and funky beers to whet your appetite: Boon Geuze Mariage Parfait (old-school funk), Rodenbach Fruitage (delightful, juiced-up sour in cans), and Philly’s favorite Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour Ale (tart and fleshy, gets the glands going). Try them with some of Ruth’s Belgian endive leaves, filled with an assortment of goat cheese, Roquefort-walnut paste or smoked fish mousse. If your kitchen exhaust fan can handle deep-frying, try the three-cheese croquettes (hot and gooey) with a side of the quintessentially Belgian fried parsley. These beers are perfect for slicing through the richness of these foods.
Time for dinner! Ease out the cork on a big bottle of Rodenbach Vintage to pair with the Flemish Carbonnades, that stupendously rich and velvety Belgian beef stew served over potatoes or thick noodles. You’ll also want to put two bottles of Rodenbach Classic in the stew while you’re cooking it; good Belgian beer is essential to this dish!
Or, go with pork roasted with pearl onions and mustard, a favorite at my house. The sweet onions, tart vinegar and mustard go well with a light Wittekerke Wild, or just crack open a Van Steenberge Sampler pack and see what works for you and your guests. Stoemp makes a great side dish, real Belgian comfort food in the form of potatoes mashed with root vegetables and cream.
Whether you go with ice cream and Belgian waffles for dessert, or just some great Belgian chocolates, this is the time for a big, fat beer like Chimay Grand Réserve or Gulden Draak. They’re big enough to stand up to sweets, or even a cigar.
German Holiday Fare Comes Home
Jeremy Nolen cooked right here in Philly at Brauhaus Schmitz, where I enjoyed many a dish of his housemade sausage and spaetzle. His book, New German Cooking, has familiar dishes with small changes, and entirely new dishes – German traditions charged with American energy that go with a variety of German beers from kölsch to doublebock.
Start with some Früh Kölsch or a good pilsner (Fürstenberg or Paulaner) with a solid loaf of pumpernickel and obatzda, a delicious, beer-infused, soft cheese spread. Make plenty and let it warm to room temperature before serving with green onions and radishes. You can transition to Paulaner or Hacker-Pschorr hefeweizen to serve with Jeremy’s sauerkraut and wheat beer soup, tangy and delicious.
Keep the pilsner flowing, but add some Spaten Oktoberfest and Franziskaner Dunkel Weisse to the mix for dinner: we’ve got brisket braised in beer with fresh-made spaetzle (which, it turns out, is stupidly easy to make). Alternatives include sausages (you can make them, or get them at Rieker’s or Aldi), meatballs with lemon-caper cream sauce, or a big bowl of pierogies.
Is there anything more German than strudel? Cherry, apple, cheese: they all go well with Spaten Optimator. You’ll want something lighter with the honeyed Beesting Cake, maybe back to the hefeweizen. Make some new traditions with this German menu!
Everyone’s waiting for the American meal! Bring out the turkey, roast the tri-tip, smoke the salmon, mash the potatoes, put the pumpkin in the pie and make sure you’ve got the fridge (and the coolers, and the unheated garage, if you’re like me) full of hoppy, fresh, boldly-flavored, American craft beer.
You don’t have to do the big traditional meal, though. If you’d rather serve up something jazzed and fun and modern, John Holl’s The American Craft Beer Cookbook is just the thing, packed with innovative foods from brewpubs across the country.
Start the day before with a crockpot full of Slow-Cooked Doppelbock BBQ Meatballs, served up with Sly Fox’s Instigator or Abita Andygator: who said you can’t have the doublebock first? But if you have a house full of hopheads… you’ve gotta go with the Hopocalypse Ceviche, spiked with habaneros and a healthy dose of a double IPA like Spring House Citra Must Be Destroyed! or Evil Genius Han Shot First (the fruit notes will pick up the flavor of the habaneros).
Part of American craft is twisting classics; our food does it, too. Take it to the Belgians with Braised Beef Short Ribs, made with a big one like Weyerbacher QUAD and served with Allagash Black or 2SP The Russian.
Or stay traditionally American: Maple-Orange Pork Loin, done on the grill, with a glaze made with Dogfish Head Olde School Barleywine. You can drink more of that, or amp the fruitiness with a Peak Winter IPA. This is a good time for cider, too!
Pumpkin is the traditionally American dessert, but pineapple has been an American favorite since colonial times. Try the Pale Ale Pineapple Brown Sugar Cupcakes, perfectly paired with Ballast Point Aloha Sculpin.
Wherever you go, whether it’s a dinner, or a party, or an impromptu neighborhood snowball fight, beer is the drink to have, to give, to add. It’s easy to serve, easy to store and when you add cider and the new hard seltzers, there really is something for everyone in the group. Why make the holidays harder?
Happy holidays, happy beer days, and save some room for New Year’s!