For many, a feast is neither festive nor complete without the inclusion of a nice bottle of wine. But with the ongoing explosion in Texas craft brewing, those inclined to crack a cold one can do so at Christmastime meals without enduring withering stares from judgmental oenophiles.
“In Europe, they have been drinking good beer with fine food for centuries,” says Justin Chamberlin, the beverage manager at Dai Due, the locavore hotspot in Austin. “And if you ask me, beer is just as versatile of wine, maybe a little more, especially now that we have so many different local varieties in Texas.”
Taste, of course, is one of our most individual senses. But most of the time, as with wine, Chamberlin says the key to a successful pairing is either to find a beer that contrasts with flavors, thereby making subtle ingredients pop (think of how a crisp pale lager can make certain Mexican or Asian spices stand out), or to find a beer that complements the taste of a main dish by echoing the dominant tastes.
Still, knowing where to begin pairing can be mystifying. So, in addition to Chamberlin, we turned to touted chefs in the beer-friendly cities of Austin, Dallas and Houston to uncover sudsy alternatives to those ubiquitous Beaujolais, rosés, and Pinot noirs.
Chef: Brian Luscher, the Grape, in Dallas
Luscher, whose restaurant is in Dallas’ trendy Greenville district, suggests skipping the hoppy India Pale Ales that “taste like your sucking on a pine bough” and reach for a winter warmer, or one of the darker porters or stout beers that proliferate when the nights grow long.
Saint Arnold Pumpkinator
This beer, out of the state’s oldest craft brewery, tops Luscher’s list, especially if you’re anticipating a dinner of turkey or other poultry. Brewed with real pumpkin, molasses and mixed spices, it’s a bold, black stout boasting a potent ten percent alcohol. Saint Arnold suggests Pumpkinator should be served at fifty degrees or slightly warmer to enhance the flavors.
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
For those looking for something a little more utilitarian, Luscher suggests this crisp California export well matched to hors d’oeuvres such as cheese plate or summer sausage.
Lakewood Brewing Temptress
When it comes time to serving up his patented garlic-crusted, smoked prime rib, Luscher likes this Imperial milk stout. With its toasted malts, complex caramel and chocolate notes, he says the Temptress, “is just sexy.”
Deep Ellum Brewing Chocolate Cherry Double Brown Stout
For dessert, Luscher likes to pair a small-batch semi-sweet seasonal porter such as Deep Ellum’s Chocolate Cherry stout with something similarly chocolatey. “We call that bridging those flavors,” he says.
Chef: Chris Shepherd, Underbelly, in Houston
The renowned Houston chef, who recently won the James Beard Award for best chef in the Southwest, tends to keep his beer selections crisp and light. “You’ve already got heavy. You’ve got gravy and stuffing and roasted potatoes and purees,” he says. “Why would you want to overdo it with something just as heavy?”
Karbach Weisse Versa
Although it’s a style more associated with the dog days of summer, Shepherd names Karbach Weiss Versa a favorite. It combines elements of an unfiltered German wheat beer with the distinctive citrus and spice styling of a Belgian white. And with its notes of nutmeg and coriander, Weiss Versa rises to the occasion.
Jolly Pumpkin Oro de Calabaza
Pushed for more typical beers associated with the season of the winter solstice, Shepherd voices a sincere appreciation for this European-style ale fermented with wild yeast and brewed in Michigan (that the brewer suggests should be served in a snifter or tulip glass, not a pint).
Real Ale Coffee Porter
512 Pecan Porter
From Texas, meanwhile, Shepherd picks a pair of Hill Country porters: the Real Ale Coffee Porter, a medium-bodied fall release brewed with Ethiopian Harrar beans from Katz’s in Houston; and the 512 Pecan Porter, a malty mix available year-round.
512 Double Pecan Porter
A last, warming winter alternative is this limited-release porter, with 8.2 percent alcohol and a hint of whiskey picked up during its aging process in Makers Mark and Jack Daniels barrels. Any of these porters, Shepherd says, would be his choice to pair with beef dishes.
Chef: Aaron Franklin, Franklin Barbecue, in Austin
“I am not nearly as nerdy about wine as I am about beer,” says pit-master Aaron Franklin of Austin’s beloved Franklin Barbecue. Indeed, when holiday travel calls for Franklin and his family to hit the road, he packs a cooler filled with stouts and porters, whether or not smoked meat is on the menu.
Hops & Grain Porter Culture
Southern Star Buried Hatchet
This year, Franklin says, his cooler will be filled with Hops & Grains’ new dark and delicious concoction (brewed with a combination of malts that carries a mild hop finish), and Southern Star Buried Hatchet, out of Conroe (north of Houston). “I think Buried Hatchet is phenomenal,” Franklin says, noting that he is almost as apt to use the stout (with a potent 8.25 percent alcohol) as an ingredient as he is to drink it. “I pour it into chili when I make it, and I will use it to deglaze a pan when I cook a roast.”
Live Oak Big Bark
Although Franklin plans a break from smoked meats during his holiday meals, he does suggest this Live Oak for those who prefer to celebrate the season with a barbecued bird or brisket. “It’s my go-to,” he says.
Jester King La Vie en Rose
Jester King Figlet
As a post-dinner digestif, both Franklin and Luscher suggest uncorking one of the fruitier farmhouse-style sour beers, such as Jester King’s La Vie en Rose, which boasts a heavy dose of raspberries. (For the beer lovers on your gift list, it’s also worth noting Franklin collaborated with Jester King on Figlet, a winter specialty that features fermented, roasted and charred figs.)
And for more explicit pairing suggestions, Chamberlin, of Dai Due, provides a helpful list of which beers go best with certain dishes (and all of these are available for order from their butcher shop):
STANDING RIB ROAST
Real Ale Brewers’ Cut #13, Oyster Stout
Without a trace of irony, Chamberlin calls this a “surf-and-turf.” The stout is brewed with Gulf oysters. “The dark grains of the beer elevate the char flavor of [the Augustus Ranch pasture raised Black Angus roast]” he adds, “while the saltiness gives an additional boost of flavor.”
Adelbert’s Brewery, Dancin’ Monks
“The flavors of dried fruits, cinnamon, and a malty sweetness just remind me of the holidays and connect the meal with the ale,” says Chamberlin, noting a Dai Due turkey comes with gravy and stuffing. “The excellent carbonation balances the smoky and juicy bird as the bubbles entices you to have another bite.”
Real Ale Kraken Barely Wine
“This pie deserves only the finest,” says Chamberlin of the classic Christmas desert. Meanwhile, the sweetness of the barley wine (a wine in name only, it is more closely related to beer) balances the sweetness of the pie, while shared notes of clove, citrus, brown sugar, brandy, and vanilla act as a bridge between the two. “Also, the high alcoholic will aid in digestion of a big holiday feast,” says Chamberlin.
Like eating and drinking locally, that’s a sentiment we can get behind, but it also serves as a reminder that there is one quality that most of the season’s best beers share with wine: a buzz factor. Which is to say, whatever you have on your plate, whatever is in your glass, plan to sip your beer – don’t guzzle – or you run the risk of ending up on Santa’s naughty list this year.
And that would be wrong.