The most wonderful time for beer

The only bit of Christmas shopping I like is carefully selecting the beers to enjoy over the holiday period. The most important choices are the beers to be savoured alongise the Christmas meal itself.

Food and beer pairings can be a joy but also at times the attempts to get them right can be a real test of endurance. Christmas Day dinner can be one of those occasions where choosing the right beers can be a particular ordeal, simply because of the range of food and differing flavours being experienced. One caveat is that Christmas seasonal beers may not be ideal because of the strong flavours contained within. These can be perfect on their own (e.g. BrewDog’s Hoppy Christmas while decorating the Christmas tree) but depending on the specific profile of each beer, they can be tricky to match with food, particularly a Christmas menu.

Menus of course vary between households but a common thread exists – deep, rich and luxurious foods that will appeal to a broad range of ages and people around the table. Some may go with a 1970s style with a prawn cocktail to start and a trifle to finish but others may have soup or light starter finishing off with the traditional heavyweight Christmas pudding. At the heart of most menus will be a roast. An obvious choice given so many dishes to be prepared for one meal, taking advantage of a slow-cooking main course helps preserve the sanity of the chef.

Christmas Menu


Prawn Cocktail

The problem with this course is not necessarily being careful not to overpower the prawns themselves but the Marie Rose sauce. The tang of the ketchup is the key feature of this dish.

Verdict: Galway Hooker is a fantastic match (it would also be an excellent choice for a Christmas all rounder).

Smoked Salmon

This can go in many directions. A Weisse beer that has strong lemony-citrus notes such as Franciscan Well’s Friar Weisse would work here as could O’Hara’s Curim Gold. Belgian Wit beers would be okay but to be aware that not everyone likes coriander as much as one might think. Hitachino Nest’s Weisse is a stunning match for smoked salmon (tried it at a tasting earlier this year), after all Japanese independent breweries are making incredible beers that match fish perfectly. I’m also thinking of the smoke and some porters would work here (e.g.  Five Lamps’ Blackpitts porter would bring something to the dish). A light smoked taste with also a bit of body would be O’Hara’s Stout. While it has flaked oats in the beer, a wholemeal stout itself could be too filling. We’re not having a sandwich here and we have to leave room for the main course itself. For citrus aromas and flavour, it’s easy to go down the route of an IPA but you should air on the side of caution. We would need an IPA that doesn’t have too much heft in the body in terms of caramel malt. An interesting possibility to use a black IPA (e.g. burnt notes in Eight Degrees’ Zeus along with some citrus character but have already selected one of theirs for later).

Verdict: Estrella Damm Inedit, need I say more. The bottle brings a certain celebration to the proceedings. It just pairs like no other, after-all it was perfectly crafted to accompany many a dish at the now closed elBulli. Even with the subtle spiciness of the coriander, this wheat beer brings champagne-like joy to the drinker.

Pate with Cumberland sauce

This starter has been chosen to represent the “cold” course, which buys you precious time on the day to focus on the other courses (also it’s Christmas for the Chef as well).

Verdict: Crafty Dan’s Big Ben, which evokes bright red fruits and picks up on the cumberland sauce. It has slight notes on the aroma with nutty flavours, but the fruits with a light spicing making this an excellent pairing (especially with the bread on the table).

Main Course

Roast Turkey, all the trimmings etc

As we eat an usual array of food during one sitting, an easy bet would be an ale (especially a strong ale if you want to indulge) from the land of pie and mash. However, there’s a complete overload of flavours on the table from the roast turkey and ham to other meats (or vegetable roasts), the herbs and spices that permeate both the stuffing and the side dishes, the cranberry sauce and other condiments. Also in keeping with a little bit of luxury that is Christmas dinner, the bottle is also important. For this the large sharing bottles are required because they capture the conviviality of the meal itself. A Bière de Garde such as 3 Monts, pick up on the herbaceaous aspects of the meal as well as bring a welcome refreshment with each sip.

Verdict: Chimay Première (Red) is ideal. It is not as full bodied as the Grand Reserve but it interesting and would match the roast flavours, including the slight caramel sweetness that occurs. The fact that it’s a Trappist offering, it lends a certain reverential awe to the day itself. Belgian Dubbels and Tripels ideally match large and hearty meals.


Christmas Pudding/Chocolate/rich desert

After gorging on 3 courses, the pace starts to slow and conscious that the board games might make an appearance, it’s time to pair the desert and coffee course with what better than a strong stout that exudes coffee and chocolate notes that perfectly complement this course. Of course, if it was just the Christmas Pudding or cake, a barley wine like Louder from the Porterhouse or Belgian Quad would work here equally.

Verdict: Eight Degrees’ Russian Imperial Stout because it’s good to celebrate all the good things in life and what’s better than to toast another remarkable year for Irish brewing than an excellent strong stout. Forget the espresso, the kitchen’s now closed.

Post-meal simply enjoying Christmas night

This is for when people decamp to couches and the Christmas present DVD box-sets come out or a movie on the TV. This is time for a sipping beer that will also pair along with the moment that when you think you couldn’t eat any more, one feels the need to make a sandwich with the leftovers. For me, I’ve always been partial to Delirium Tremens because there’s a fair bit of pleasant complexity going on. This could the time to open the O’Hara’s Double IPA or if you have some relatively strong beer in stock.

Verdict: Brooklyn Local No.2 because I want to keep in with the dark Belgian strong ales. This is luxuriant in its spiciness with sweetness coming from of honey which compliments the dark fruit and chocolate flavours.



Is there an end to craft beer scareways?

It is a sad thing that air travel it not-so-glamorous as it once was. Yes, I love travel and all the more so when the destination includes fantastic beers. However, craft beer during travel remains all too infrequent (not counting smuggled beers onto trains etc).

Dublin Airport does not have much variation in beer. You’d expect that with the city home to Guinness. There was criticism in the Twitter-sphere over a craft beer tasting being held in Dublin Airport some time back because of the lack of its availability at the airport. At least, duty free offers O’Hara selection boxes. But the potential in duty free remains to be exploited when you see the sheer range of whiskeys on offer, including those from independent distilleries. The Slaney bar in T2 is on a brighter more “international” feel than those in the old terminal. The taps demonstrate the determination of Molson-Coors to get a foothold through pushing Blue Moon. There are a few Belgian and German “usuals” in the fridges behind the bar.

The Slaney in T2 – there was more Irish craft beer available in Philadephia Airport

I don’t usually drink on the flight over to the States because the choices are never brilliant. On US Airways, it was either or Heineken. The airlines themselves could do more in this space. On most carriers now you have to pay for alcohol so why not carry better beer? Think about all the tech company employees travelling across the Atlantic. Some are serious craft beer heads. There’s a market to be cultivated there. With Aer Lingus re-opening their San Francisco route what better way to gain some added promotion than stocking West Coast beers in addition to Guinness. I have only been surprised by the on-board selection a couple of times, once I was offered a Leinenkugel Sunset What (yes, I’m aware it’s in the hands of SAB Miller) and from time to time I’ve been offered a Fuller’s London Pride. The trick will be to introduce airlines to the craft beer available in cans because glass bottles (and plastic bottles have some way to go) are out of the question. If only airlines carried decent beers because it would make watching the edited movies more palatable. There’s only so much “dirt plucker, what da freak?, spit jerk and air head” one can take!

Arriving in Philadelphia, I had two things on my mind. The first being to find a pint and a prior google search had alerted me to the fact that the Jet Rock Bar & Grill in Terminal B has a good craft beer selection. The second being to, find somewhere for a decent cheesesteak, well as decent as one can get in an airport. However, I was pleasantly surprised to come across a tribute to local Philadelphia brewing history on the way to the bar. It was particularly interesting to see the evolution of D.G. Yuengling & sons over the years but the final display case (also the largest) gave a great demonstration of the sheer number of breweries that have been set up during the craft beer revolution.

Jet has a decent selection but at typically inflated prices that you find in US airports. The beer list came without prices and when asked at the bar for an indication of what they might be, I was told it was complicated to explain. I decided to opt for a local brew to start off with and had Dirtwolf from Victory Brewing, a double IPA weighing in at 8.7% on the basis that any beer was going to be expensive so why not enjoy it. Dirtwolf features plenty of citrus and pine, thanks to copius amounts of Citra, Chinook, Simcoe and Mosaic. It also comes complete with an immediate and apparent dryness that remains throughout. With time to kill before my next flight, I decided to have one more and opted this time for Great Lakes Nosferatu from Ohio. On draft, it had little-to-no aroma with a classic ruby-red colour. Initially sweet, it gave away to a pleasantly dry bitterness. It gave way to a ponderous bitter sweet finish, all the more so when the bill arrived and it worked out to be $8.50 for a 12 ounce (350ml approximately) pour of both beers and not including the tip. Oh and by the way, O’Hara’s stout was on sale in Philadelphia airport.

As I was on my way to Nashville, I was looking forward to trying out the new Yazoo presence at the airport but my wife’s flight was early so there wasn’t time to partake of some local brews. I wasn’t too disappointed as there would be plenty of time to try them over the holiday. The bars in Nashville airport sum up one of the challenges facing craft breweries. They tend to be operated by large concession companies that only the likes of the biggest independent breweries, which of course means Sam Adams features prominently. There may be some regional differences between airports such as Brooklyn beers being available in the New York area but there is also the opportunity for the “non-craft” beers such as Blue Moon and Goose Island to be the backbone of choice at airport bars. Did I mention that Nashville airport also has its very own Tootsies, the famous Broadway bar? It’s a sanitised version (which has its good and bad points) as well as live music.

Recognisable figure in Tennessee

According to Draft Magazine, these are the top 5 US airports for craft beer:

  • Denver International Airport (DEN)
  • Portland International Airport (PDX)
  • Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE)
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
  • Boston Logan International Airport (BOS)

Returning home, I had the opportunity to stop over in Charlotte, North Carolina. This may be my first and only visit to the airport due to the fact that the airport might lose its hub status resulting from US Air merging with American. North Carolina famous for its tobacco industry is now finding itself becoming a major player in brewing terms. Taking advantage of its location, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have established major new East Coast breweries Asheville, NC. It provides major access to the North and South of the easter seaboard (hopefully it means that we might also see New Belgium making its way onto ships bound for Europe).

The stopover in Charlotte gave me the opportunity for another first – I was able to order a sampler of different local brews in an airport bar.

  • Carolina Blonde (Foothills Brewing, Winston-Salem) was golden in colour with slight sweetness and light hop bite. It was smooth but slightly lacking in the body. Balance wasn’t quite right as it became almost watery at times.
  • Natty Greene’s Wildflower Witbier (Natty Greene’s Pub & Brewing Co., Greensboro) was supposedly a “classic Belgian style white ale spiced with corinader, curacao, orange zest and home grown elder flowers from Ft. Collins, CO” but it wasn’t. It was golden yellow in colour, malt forward with a slight spice edge. Didn’t have the body of a witbier and drank like a lager.
  • Olde Mecklenberg Copper was described by the brewery as an “authentic Dusseldorf Altbier”. The name wasn’t misleading as a vibrant copper colour was visible from the off. There was little discernible aroma on the nose but the beer drank smoothly with a dry, crisp finish.
  • Hop, Drop and Roll™ (NoDa Brewing Company, Charlotte). A trade mark beer, literally. It presented a hazy orange body. There was citrus and sweet toffee on the nose. Starts with a citrus bitterness due to lashings of Citra and Amarillio that continues long into the finish. Seriously bitter (when compared to the others) and was at 80 IBUs.
Rare to be given the option of a beer sampler in an airport bar

On my last stop over in Philadelphia before heading back to Dublin, I had the opportunity to stop for a quick pint at the obligatory Irish pub that is conveniently located to the Irish gates. I had time for one last IPA and thankfully this pub was slightly more reasonable both in terms of its pricing and size. It called for another local brew because afterall I always seem to do an awful lot of airport terminal tourism, without ever going out and seeing the town in which it’s located.  I ordered a Yards IPA from right there in Philly, which had a rich amber colour with a fluffy white head. Fresh pine was instantly recognisable on the nose. It tasted initially sweet but citrus bitterness takes over. After watching the end of an American football game (the last 5 minutes amounted to time it takes to drink a pint), it was time to board and head home.

Yards IPA – one for the road or in this case air

Forget the sleeps to Christmas, only 100 days to St. Patrick’s Day

Sitting in an Irish bar in Philadelphia airport, I was struck by the countdown clock to St. Patrick’s Day provided by Guinness. Last Sunday there was 106 days to do, which means today marks the 100-day countdown. Why is this important? We’ll for a start, it’s the first St.Patrick’s Day since the Arthur’s Day brouhaha and it will be interesting if the media roundly criticise the drink culture associated with the celebrations and the unofficial sponsor from St. James’ Gate. Second, the 17 March falls on a Monday so it’ll be a long weekend once more. This affords an opportunity to celebrate the independent beers of Ireland. Is this an opportunity to collectively promote these breweries and the ones that are about to be launched. Is their a piece of the festivities that we can claim as our own. There’s an opportunity to build on the beer festival in the IFSC and the individual celebrations of the specialist beer bars. With a festival that supposedly champions Irishness, we should make a bigger effort to promote the Irish independents to a wider audience. Such efforts could be as little as a type of 1% programme (e.g. buy a craft beer pint for a mate that drinks nothing but macros etc) or it could be something bigger. What that could be I don’t know but there’s an opportunity there that we should take advantage of.

Who knows what the future could bring but given the huge American interest in this holiday, we should aim for a platform to introduce some of the Irish brewing talent to the US. Yes, O’Hara’s and the Porterhouse have made an entry to the US market. I can only imagine what the celebrations would be like in Fraunces Tavern. However, American craft breweries have introduced a number of St. Patrick’s seasonal brews (yes, some of them are green including one produced by Dogfish Head). This could be an opportunity for special collaboration brews, involving breweries at home. Also, perhaps we could also encourage those who refer it to St. Patty’s Day to stop it. We should take inspiration from the Dungarvan-Adnams Stout produced for Wetherspoons this year.

Given the global appeal of St. Patrick’s Day, the potential to make place the Irish craft beer scene in the popular imagination remains untapped.