Thursday, November 10, 2016

I'm Dreaming of a Craft Beer Christmas

- First published in Southern Brew News in December of 2015 -

By Owen Ogletree

This holiday season, forget the champagne, mulled wine and eggnog. Craft beer mania has gripped the nation, and the massive range of styles, colors and flavors offered by craft beers means that there's a delicious, perfect beer for every holiday occasion. Pairing wines with winter holiday cuisine often proves a tricky task, but not so with craft beer. With its mellow smoothness, malt sweetness, creamy carbonation and malt character ranging from mild cereal and toast to caramel, toffee, chocolate and espresso, there's a craft beer to pair with any food item - even dessert.

New breweries are springing up across the Southeast, struggling to meet demand for booming, thirsty craft beer markets from Louisiana to North Carolina, and creative southeastern brewers are producing world-class, award-winning products. We've tackled the difficult task of choosing only one sumptuous craft beer from each southeastern state to pair with various winter holiday fare. Try these pairings, or come up with new matches to enjoy with friends and family during this festive time of year.

Loup Garou from Louisiana's Bayou Teche Brewing features a scary label with a swamp werewolf, but this rich, 8% ABV Belgian-style imperial stout that's aged with licorice root in whiskey barrels makes a splendid pairing for holiday sweets. This limited edition winter seasonal ale is brewed with malts that include crystal, chocolate and rye, and the beer is infused with French hops and brown sugar, providing an impressive depth of flavors that meld well with all types of holiday spiced desserts like gingerbread, carrot cake, rum cake or chewy molasses cookies.

Started in 2013 with the goal of bringing amazing craft beers to Mississippi, Southern Prohibition Brewing sits in a downtown Hattiesburg space that was once home to a furniture showroom. Now the owners show off popular brews such as Mississippi Fire Ant - an imperial red ale matured in oak barrels. This ale boasts an intense, dark ruby color, flavorful malt complexity and elegant, earthy, spicy hop aroma and flavor. Folks will welcome this "Fire Ant" into their holiday kitchens, as the beer's biscuity, toasty, dark caramel tones complement the caramelized character of roast beef or pork. Mississippi Fire Ant scored a silver medal at the 2014 Chicago Festival of Wood & Barrel-aged Beers.

Head to the Nations Neighborhood of West Nashville to visit the new 28,000 square feet tasting room of Turtle Anarchy Brewing Company. Turtle Anarchy's Permafrost ranks as a splendid brown ale loaded with spice character from additions of ginger, clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. With 6.2% ABV and 20 IBUs, this malty brew offers notes of roasted nuts, treacle, caramel and raisin toast that go extremely well with rich holiday fare like baked sweet potatoes topped with syrup and marshmallows.

Back in 2008, the founders of Good People Brewing quit their day jobs to take on the arduous goal of pioneering a craft brewery in Birmingham, Alabama. Known to regular Good People drinkers as "C-O-S," the brewery's popular Coffee Oatmeal Stout contains 5.7% ABV, 51 IBUs, five specialty malts, oats, smooth Octane Coffee, authentic British ale yeast and Willamette and Columbus hops. Expect a rich, slightly sweet coffee taste, viscous mouthfeel from the oats, balancing hops and fruity esters. Any holiday grub that goes down well with a cup of coffee will complement this brew. Try fruit pies, scones or aged gouda or warm brie and crackers.

The guys at Atlanta's Monday Night Brewing stashed some Drafty Kilt Scottish-style strong ale in Kentucky bourbon barrels for a few months and then sent some bottles off to the 2014 Great American Beer Festival, where the beer took the coveted gold medal in the barrel-aged category. Bourbon Barrel Drafty Kilt is filled with notes of vanilla, charred oak tannins, toffee, burnt sugar, dark fruit, cocoa and cherry-wood smoked malt. This Christmas, drink this warming, malty ale with anything and everything chocolate.

At Christmastime in sunny Tampa, the brewers at Cigar City will most likely still be in shorts, but this doesn't stop them from churning out Cigar City Sugar Plum - a delightful winter seasonal brown ale that's accentuated with rose hips, cinnamon, ginger, chamomile, chicory and carob. The nutty, malty profile provides hints of bitter chocolate and roasted malts, and the full body forms the perfect canvas for esters and spices. Grab that fruit cake that's being used as a door-stop and try a slice with a snifter of Sugar Plum, or sip the beer with chestnuts roasted on a open fire.

Who says that hops don't go with Christmas? Westbrook Brewing in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina gets off on experimenting with unusual ingredients, but Shane's Big DIPA ranks as a 9.6% ABV imperial IPA packed with 80 IBUs and a mammoth dose of flavoring hops. This ale brings a glow to the cheeks and a warmth to the tummy, while providing a conversation-provoking libation to serve with Parmigiano-Reggiano or blue cheeses with a dollop of holiday jam. Also pair with roast duck, ham and prime rib.

With their wildly adored sour ales and award-winning hoppy brews, Asheville's Wicked Weed can't seem to make enough beer these days. Visitors can check out the brewpub restaurant, cellar bar or separate Funkatorium barrel warehouse and taproom a few blocks away. Wicked Weed's orange-hued XLIX Maple Sweet Potato Saison seems quite suited for the winter season. Notes of spice, maple syrup, fresh fruits, local sweet potatoes, mild acidity and Belgian character form a perfect marriage with the beer's luxurious mouthfeel, and this specialty saison would be heaven alongside roast turkey with sage dressing, Cornish game hen and even caviar on melba toast.

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