A Beer Lover’s Guide to Holiday Entertaining
What better authority on holiday spirit could there possibly be than Charles Dickens? With A Christmas Carol, a short piece dashed off in a matter of weeks, so they say, he forever changed how we think about the holiday season. Sowing the seeds of good will and good cheer that are so much a part of celebrations at this most wonderful time of year, Dickens’ literary genius ensured that generation after generation would continue to reap the value of that tale.
Sowing the seeds, however, is only half the job. Without nourishment, those seeds would never bear the fruit of human kindness. Dickens and his contemporaries weren’t shy about nourishing that spirit with that most congenial beverage, beer. It’s really no surprise that beer has held an honored place in seasonal celebrations for many centuries, because, as we’ll see, beer has the perfect qualities to help those seeds of good cheer fulfill their potential and spring forth in all their glory.
But back to Dickens for a moment. I’ve always harbored a lingering doubt about the authenticity of the mid-Victorian sentimentality depicted in Dickens’s writing, but I must admit it’s appealing. Dickens portrays a simpler, less complicated time, but it’s a picture that belies the fundamental societal changes that were under way. In the England of the 1840s, the Industrial Revolution was the agent of change, as the people left their traditional rural-based way of life behind in their exodus to the metropolis. In our world, technology has moved us into the fast lane of change, altering our daily lives in obvious and subtle ways. The natural tendency to feel adrift in times such as these accounts for the enduring appeal of Dickens’s most famous work. People yearn for the old ways even as they embrace the new.
In the end, the lessons Dickens so ably taught us in his classic A Christmas Carol apply in our world just as they did in his because they strike a core human chord. Nothing is more basic to our nature than bringing family and friends together in celebration. Unfortunately, our fast-lane world brings stress and worry to even this defining instinct of mankind.
We all look forward to this busy time of year with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Fond childhood memories of gift giving, decorations, family gatherings and school holidays intermingle with today’s hectic demands. The “have-to” of office parties and gift exchanges, the stress of planning elaborate gatherings, the endless list of Christmas cards, divining the proper gift for that eccentric bachelor uncle–all combine to put a decidedly un-Dickensian edge on the season.
“Mankind was my business…charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business.”
–A Christmas Carol, Stave One
But, unless you’re a relative of that humbug, Ebenezer Scrooge, chances are you’ll be entertaining this holiday season. Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, holiday entertaining can take many forms, from formal dinner parties to casual drop-ins. But whatever you’re planning (or need to be prepared for), don’t lose sight of what’s important – the human element. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of producing an event rather than offering your guests true sociability, conviviality, hospitality and good cheer. These are, after all, what the holiday season is all about. Just think what a holiday devoid of these qualities would be like…ok, we’ll get to the office party later. The point is that you bring your friends together to enjoy their company, to laugh, to talk, to relax. Simple and unpretentious.
This simple, unpretentious conviviality, so well portrayed by Dickens, is never out of season and remains, as in Dickens’ time, the hallmark of successful holiday entertaining. Here are some suggestions to promote holiday good will and cheer. Two common elements will be apparent throughout–the central place of tradition and the starring role that beer appropriately plays in these seasonal events.
A brief word on the importance of each of these elements is in order. Many of the holiday activities we enjoy today hearken back to much earlier times, and are rooted in traditions handed down by our forefathers. Simple activities become traditions because they meet some fundamental human social need. Using these traditions as the basis of our entertaining tangibly links us to our history and gives our celebrations a deeper meaning.
Like traditions, beer promotes social interaction, inviting us to join in the revelry. The importance of beer to human civilization is undeniable. From early times, it has accompanied man on his journey and held a place in many of his festivals and celebrations, both secular and religious.
Traditional, unpretentious and sociable, let beer convey your hospitality this holiday season.
The Groaning Board
“Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.”
A Christmas Carol, Stave Three
Nothing promotes sociability and good cheer more than an abundance of good food and drink. And no beverage matches the great range of foods better than beer. Its diversity, flexibility and moderate alcohol content make it the perfect libation for all your holiday parties. There is, literally, a beer style to match each course of your holiday meal, from the soup to the nuts.
Broiled Oysters on the Half Shell
Melton Mowbray Pork Pie
Potatoes, Baked and Boiled
Plum Pudding with Hard Sauce
Boston Lettuce Salad
Sautéed Scallops with Mushrooms and Tomatoes
Buttered Sugar Snap Peas
Melton Mowbray Pork Pie
A robust pie from the English Shires, justly famous for its juicy, jellied filling. A little anchovy essence gives the meat an extra savory tang. The pies were originally served at high tea after a long day’s hunt.
“God bless us everyone!”
–A Christmas Carol, Stave Three
The origins of toasting are obscure, although some authorities link the term to the toasted bread traditionally floated on, or crumbled in, the wassail. The word “wassail” is variously translated as “be whole” or “be healthy,” hence the link to toasting or drinking to one’s health. Raising your glass in a toast is a fine (and very traditional) way to show appreciation for your guests. It’s also a great opportunity to express the heartfelt sentiments of the season and should be a part of all your holiday entertaining. Here are a few examples that convey the felicity of the occasion:
Then let us be merry and taste the good cheer,
And remember that Christmas comes but once a year.
Then here’s to the heartening wassail,
Wherever good fellows are found;
Be its master instead of its vassal,
And order the glasses around.
“Fifty more Christmases at least in this life, and eternal summers in another.”
–Charles Dickens, Mr. Pickwick’s Christmas dinner toast
Old World Traditions and a New World Beer to Go with Them
If dinner isn’t your party thing, plenty of other entertaining opportunities lend themselves to holiday merry-making. Draw on one of the many classic symbols of the season to bring friends and family together, or take part in a traditional wintertime group activity.
Trimming the Tree
“The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove, from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened.”
–A Christmas Carol, Stave Three
Evergreens have been associated with seasonal celebrations dating back to pre-Christian times, with one of the earliest references coming out of northern Europe. Here, the Druids are said to have honored their god, Woden, by affixing fruit and coins to tree branches. Today, the unquestioned king is the Weihnachtsbaum, or Christmas tree.
While its name might suggest a more modern, strictly religious linkage, the symbolism of the evergreen remains firmly rooted in our pagan past. Although we have the English to thank for popularizing the custom of decorating a tree within our homes, the 16th century German cleric, Martin Luther, is often credited with the original idea of bringing the outdoors in. Tradition holds that after a Christmas Eve walk through the forest under star-lit skies, Luther recreated for his children the image of the starry heavens by placing candles on a pine.
There’s nothing quite like cutting your own tree for the holidays. And there’s nothing like getting some help to do it. Invite some friends to accompany you to the local “cut your own” farm and see how many different opinions you can get on what constitutes the “perfect tree.” After you’ve figured that one out, haul the tree home and put your pals to work on the riddle of the lights!
The Beer Choice: Alaskan Winter Ale
The addition of spruce tips to this beer gives it a slightly citrusy-spicy character pleasantly suggestive of pine resin. This ale gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Drink in the season.”
The Yule Log
Come, bring with a noise,
My merrie, merrie boyes,
The Christmas log to the firing;
While my good dame, she
Bids ye all be free,
And drink to your hearts’ desiring.
In days of yore, the burning of the Yule log, or clog, was attended with great ceremony. Lit on Christmas Eve using a piece of the previous year’s log, it burned all night into Christmas Day. While it burned, there was customarily a profusion of merry-making that would include singing, dancing, telling tales, and drinking. Many superstitions were associated with the log burning, and it was accepted as fact that should the fire go out during the night, misfortune was imminent!
You don’t need to tie yourself too strictly to tradition. Dispense with ceremony and turn your fireplace (or even your wood stove) into that traditional gathering place from which to dispense hospitality.
The Beer Choice: Magic Hat’s Humble Patience
Reminiscent of a winter’s walk in the pine forest, this rich, deep red ale has an intriguing mossy, earthy palate, ending with a slight whiskey note. This beer has the complexity and the substance to warm you from the inside out, while maintaining an unassuming equanimity that won’t put your fire out!
Our wassail cup is made of
The rosemary tree,
And so is your beer
Of the best barley.
–“Here We Come A-Wassailing,” traditional English carol
Whether you gather ’round the piano or take to the streets to regale the neighborhood, there’s nothing quite like communal singing to pump the blood and inspire camaraderie! Carol singing has its roots in the pre-Christian mid-winter festivals celebrating the regeneration of life, with many words in the more familiar carols making reference to the evergreens holly, ivy and pine.
The Beer Choice: Full Sail’s Wassail
The right choice in more than just name. At 6.5 percent alcohol by volume, this seasonal offering is fortifying enough to ensure you’ll be lustily belting out “Good King Wenceslas” in true holiday spirit, but it’s so drinkable that “Silent Night” won’t come too early!
The Gingerbread House: Edible Architecture
The kitchen is a natural gathering place in 21st century homes, essentially taking on the role the hearth played in the time of our forebears. As food brings people together, making a gingerbread house is a great group activity–from gathering the ingredients to baking, building and decorating. You can even buy a pre-fab house. Readily available kits give you everything you need in one package. Keep it simple, keep it fun!
The Beer Choice: Left Hand’s JuJu Ginger Ale
Ginger is a traditional holiday ingredient in many foods, from main course to dessert. Why not as a beverage? Brewed with freshly ground gingerroot, JuJu has a refreshingly crisp quality that will cut the heat of the kitchen as well as the bite of the winter wind.
“…the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose.”
–A Christmas Carol, Stave Two
As a counterpoint to all those fantastic contemporary seasonal brews in your holiday beer cellar, try some traditional libations that would have been familiar to Dickens, Bob Cratchit, and the converted Scrooge. You may decide that subjecting your guests to some of these precursors of the flavored malt beverage might not be in the best holiday spirit. The fact that these concoctions were consumed with relish a century ago says as much about how tastes have changed as it does about the versatility of beer.
Allow 1/4 pound of unsalted butter to come to room temperature. Gently warm a pint of ale and pour it over the butter. Beat to a smooth consistency and serve warm (not hot) in tankards.
Hot Spiced Ale
1 quart good ale
1/2 whole nutmeg, grated
2 eggs, well beaten
Small piece unsalted butter
1 piece dry toast
Heat (do not boil) the ale, then add grated nutmeg. Mix beaten eggs with a little cold ale. Add the hot ale to the egg mixture and keep stirring until it froths. Add the butter and float the dry toast on the liquid. Serve in tankards.
3 pints brown ale (or 2 pints pale ale and 1 pint stout)
1/2 pound white sugar
1 teaspoon mixed spices (cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, mace)
6 whole cloves
7 roasted crabapples (or sour apples)
1 pint hard cider
3 lemon slices
Put the beer, cider, sugar and cloves into a large enameled pan; heat and stir until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is quite hot. Have the roasted apples (35 minutes at 400 degrees F) ready, laid in the bottom of the serving bowl and dusted with the spices. Pour in the hot mixture, float the lemon rings, and decorate the bowl with holly sprigs. Serve immediately. Alternatively, the roasted crabapples may be peeled, cored and mashed before being added to the bowl.
1 pint Guinness
2 ounces gin
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Warm the Guinness and gin, add the sugar, and sprinkle the nutmeg on top. Drink it hot!
½ pint Champagne
½ pint Guinness
Pour the Champagne into a pint silver tankard, and carefully pour the Guinness on top.
The Office Party
“Let me hear another sound from you,” said Scrooge, “and you’ll keep your Christmas by losing your situation.”
A Christmas Carol, Stave One
Every bright and cheery thing has a dark side, and it’s time we dealt with the inevitable. That office politics minefield known as the company party is just as much a part of the holiday season as the Christmas turkey. The classic stereotype of the office party faux pas is the employee who drinks too much, ends up saying or doing something regretful, and gets canned in the bargain.
As in so much of life, your best defense is a good offense. Moderation is the key, so stick to the beverage of moderation–beer. If at all possible, bring your own and hide it behind the fruitcake in the office fridge.
The Beer Choice: Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig Ale or BridgePort Ebenezer Ale
Dickens himself would have a hard time choosing favorites between these two beers, but you can’t go wrong with either! Old Fezziwig Ale, like its namesake, is bursting with character and admirably reflects the richness of the season. BridgePort’s offering is akin to the converted Scrooge–rich and warmly generous in its dispensation of holiday cheer!
England was merry England, when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
’Twas Christmas broach’d the mightiest ale;
’Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man’s heart through half the year.
–Sir Walter Scott, Marmion (1808)
’Tis the Season for Giving
You throw parties, your friends throw parties; you give, you get. When you’re on the invitation end of a party, the season demands that you take your host(ess) something that acknowledges his/her hospitality. Surprise! Beer works beautifully in this role. Many specialty brews are debuted for the holidays, often showcased in 750-milliliter “champagne” bottles that make a presentation statement that’s sure to impress. Some even sport corks, wire hood and foil!
But what to give? This is too important to leave to amateurs, so here are a few suggestions from some of the biggest names when it comes to beer, food and entertaining.
The Experts Pick
Stephen Beaumont: “I’d choose Avec les Bons Voeux de la Brasserie Dupont, not only because it is an excellent beer in a format (750 milliliter) that lends itself well to gift-giving, but also because the translation of the name, ‘With the best wishes of the brewery Dupont,’ evokes a lovely holiday sentiment.”
Garrett Oliver: “I’d bring our own Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, which is great with plum pudding and whipped cream. Aside from that, my favorite holiday beer is Avec les Bon Voeux de la Brasserie Dupont from Belgium. It has a full, deep orange color and an aroma of herbs, musty fruit compote, black pepper, hops and sweet spices. The power is obvious on a round, sweetish palate just bursting with fruit. The finish is long and resinous.”
Charles Finkel: “The beer I usually choose as a holiday party gift is Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome brewed by The Old Brewery, Tadcaster, Yorkshire, England. A strong pale ale, Winter Welcome is round, rich and well balanced, making it a great accompaniment to holiday dishes like roast heirloom turkey, rare roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, or wild salmon with dill sauce. Because it is not too strong, it is a nice aperitif, when friends gather to talk over nuts and cheese or to warm up on a chilly day. It is always a big hit as a gift, since the package is festive and inviting, featuring an embossed Victorian-style bottle and a colorful label with a holiday-inspired illustration that changes annually.”
Roger Protz: “I would give a bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale. The beer has beauty, formidable strength, a fascinating history, and can be laid down for several years like fine wine. [First] brewed in Dorchester in southwest England for a literary festival to commemorate writer and poet Thomas Hardy, the beer was a sensation and has become a regular annual vintage. It is 12 percent alcohol by volume, is bottle fermented, and will improve with age. A young version has rich cherry-like fruit, coffee, tannins and firm spicy and peppery hop notes. Aged in the bottle, it will develop aromas and flavors reminiscent of fresh tobacco and old leather. It is wonderful to sip in front of a roaring log fire, or it will make a fine companion for tangy English blue cheese.”
Typically, these guys would have the last word, but a few other classics deserve a mention:
Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve
Magic Hat Feast of Fools (if you can get it!)
New Glarus Belgian Red
Build Your Own Holiday Beer Cellar
Since you just never know when you’ll be thrown into the role of host, plan ahead and have a strategic reserve in place. What better way to impress your guests than with a larder overflowing with brightly labeled, festive beers from which to choose?
Brewers usually make their seasonal specialties available in November, so begin assembling your cellar early. You’ll want a predominance of seasonal session beers that will work well on their own for casual drop-ins and as the perfect accompaniment for dinner. You’ll also want to have some bigger beers on hand, and while the following list highlights Belgium, many countries offer fine examples. Finally, keep in mind that many seasonals, while retaining their name, change recipes from year to year.
Suggestions from the United States
Snowcap, Pyramid Breweries
Winter Ale, Shipyard Brewing Co.
Sam Adams Winter Lager, Boston Beer
Smoked Porter, Alaskan Brewing Co.
Frambozen Raspberry Brown Ale, New Belgium Brewing Co.
Celebration Ale, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Jubelale, Deschutes Brewery
Saranac Season’s Best, Matt Brewing Co.
Belgian Grand Cru Golden Winter Ale, Flying Fish Brewing Co.
Stille Nacht, Brouwerij De Dolle Brouwers
Speciale de Noel, Brasserie Fantome
Noel, Brouwerij Het Anker
Speciale Noel, Brasserie de l’Abbaye des Rocs
Scaldis Noel, Brasserie Dubuisson Freres
Christmas Ale, Brouwerij Corsendonk
Delirium Noel, Brouwerij Huyghe
Christmas Ale, George Gale & Co.
Vintage Harvest Ale, J.W.Lees
Winter Welcome, Samuel Smith
“It is, indeed, the season of regenerated feeling–the season for kindling not merely the fire of hospitality in the hall, but the genial flame of charity in the heart.”
–Washington Irving, The Sketch Book (1819-1820)
This holiday season, make a resolution to slow down, refuse to get caught up in the rush, and instead enjoy the season for all the right reasons. The versatility of beer makes it the ideal accompaniment to all your seasonal entertaining. Your invitation list simply won’t be complete without your trusted fermented friend!
Pete Johnson serves as Program Director for the Brewers Association of America and is an independent beer writer. His boundless enthusiasm for beer is matched only by his love of British history and tradition.