After a solid week of eating Thanksgiving leftovers, I got to thinking about rich, flavorful beers that practically constitute a meal of their own. Big stouts, barleywines, festive seasonals — these are the perfect beers to enjoy as the new year approaches.
As with the decadent feasts that many indulge in during the holidays, beers like these play a role in the creation of many a New Year's resolution. My philosophy: if you must splurge, at least do it right. There are plenty of big, bold, and flavorful brews out there, including limited and new-release options that make a great accompaniment to a 2,000-calorie meal, or a liquid feast on their own.
While many of these are liable to add a little extra wear and tear to your scale, some are simply full of flavor, and not overly heavy. Take Harpoon's recent seasonal, the Grateful Harvest Cranberry Ale (below). I grabbed a bottle for my recent holiday beer tasting, but it didn't quite fit in with the rest of the selections. It's a reasonably light session ale brewed with fresh cranberries, which adds a fresh, festive, and subtly tart character to the beer.
Then there's another food-based beer, Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Ale, an English-style nut brown ale that uses locally harvested roasted pecans in the mash, along with the standard grains. This is an adventurous move by the folks at Lazy Magnolia, as the oils in nuts would generally be bad for the finished beer. Somehow, it works out great, with a nice, nutty flavor that would probably go quite well an actual slice of pecan pie.
If apple pie is more your style, perhaps you would be better off with Crispin's Stagger Lee, a limited-release cider blending various fresh apple juice and wines that have been aged in rye whiskey casks. It's named after a song that has been performed by hundreds of artists spanning several genres, from the Clash to Duke Ellington. Crispin calls this an "authentic American rock 'n' roll cider," and I'd have to agree — it has a fantastic spicy oak character from the rye casks, and it's just heavy enough, at nearly 7 percent alcohol by volume, to warm you up in the winter months. For the record, I think it would go best with the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds version of the song.
Bell's Two-Hearted Ale isn't exactly news in the IPA scene, but it's worth keeping in mind due to a hop flavor so well-defined you almost have to chew. The American IPA style is great year-round, and the Two-Hearted Ale is one of my favorite examples. If you're in the middle of a meal consisting of several dozen different flavors, why not add a few more with this balanced, floral, rich pale ale?
Some of these beers are easily enjoyed on their own, such as Dogfish Head's Olde School barleywine, (right) a monster of a beer at 15 percent ABV. The addition of dates and figs to the fermenting wort results in a highly complex beer with fruit and licorice notes complementing the massive malt bill. This is certainly one to savor, and it ages well — the label suggests burying a bottle in the woods and coming back a year later to dig it up and enjoy. If anyone does this, please report back to me next year.
Finally, I managed to track down a bottle of the legendary Courage Imperial Russian Stout at Shep's Deli in St. Pete. This particular stout traces its lineage back to the early 18th century, when it was brewed in England and shipped to Russia at the request of Catherine the Great. The strong alcohol content (10 percent ABV) prevented the beer from freezing in transit, and a healthy hop addition was added to prevent the beer from spoiling.
Courage Imperial Russian Stout was last brewed nearly 30 years ago, but Wells & Young head brewer Jim Robertson, who brewed the beer back in the early '80s, decided to revive this classic brew by faithfully reproducing the recipe and bringing it to our shelves.
The result is easily one of the best stouts I've ever tried, Imperial or otherwise. It's rich, smooth, complex, and powerful — a perfect finishing touch for a fine meal, or as a standalone brew to enjoy as the new year approaches.