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Column Have a Hoppy Christmas! Some beers to try over the festive season...

Raise a glass – or even make a mean beer-brined turkey – with these beer selection tips.

CHRISTMAS IS NOW upon us and festive beers have started appearing on shelves and draught around the country. People primarily drink with their eyes and as the nights get darker and colder, darker beers and stronger beers tend to become more appealing. We aren’t just talking stouts here, although they will always play their part.

Many breweries, including the large multinationals, often have winter beers available. Sometimes these are just slightly darker versions of an existing beer and sometimes they are spiced with festive spices, similar to mulled wine. In fact, you can mull beer and cider too. Sweeter beers work best but you can try it with any beer.

Perhaps one of the best known Irish festive beer is White Gypsy’s Yule Ól. This should be on everyone’s Christmas drinks menu. It’s a big 6% ale with lots of toffee and chocolate flavours as well as some coffee. You can also expect some dark berries and spices. Think of the beer version of Christmas pudding and you will be on the right track.

If you want to try something different and non-Irish, then look no further than the world renowned Samichlaus from Austria. As you might guess, the word translates into English as Santa Claus. It’s brewed on 6 December (Saint Nicholas’ Eve) each year and then aged for 10 months. At 14%, it needs to be treated with respect. For many years, this was considered the strongest lager in the world. You can expect prunes and caramel on the nose. Once in the mouth, you will find it very sweet and tastes syrupy but doesn’t have a cloying mouthfeel. This is a lager, so it will be rather refreshing despite its high alcoholic level. A wonderful beer to sip on a cold night. Prunes and fruitcake abound. You can expect to pair this with rich chocolate. For me, Samichlaus is the ultimate Christmas dinner digestif. Be quick, I believe it’s disappearing off shelves around the country.

Some of the Irish seasonal ales available around this time of year are as follows:

  • Dungarvan – Coffee and Oatmeal Stout
  • St Mel’s – Raisin and Oatmeal Stout
  • O’Hara’s – Winter StaR
  • Beoir Chorcha Duibhne – Riasc Black
  • White Gypsy – A Winters Ale: Keg & Dark Nights: Cask
  • 8 degrees – Double Irish, Russian imperial stout & Belgian Dubbel
  • Trouble brewing – Dash Away cherry chocolate Stout

So what about the Christmas dinner itself? What beer would complement your traditional turkey? There are a number of options available to you, depending on whether you want to compliment or contrast. To compliment, a caramel forward beer such as a traditional Irish red ale will do nicely. This should complement the caramelisation of the turkey and roast potatoes. Any Irish red will do but I can recommend 8 degrees’ Sunburnt Irish red in particular. For something stronger, a Belgian style Dopplebock like the one from White Gypsy (750ml bottle).

Want to contrast instead? Something a little different might be in order. A little known French style of beer is Bière de Garde. They are a little similar to some Belgian style ales but a lot less heavy in body. Carbonation is high and it’s this that will lift the grease from your palate and leave you refreshed for your next course. It also helps that it’s a very refreshing style of beer. I would recommend a 750ml bottle of La Goudale or 3 Monts as excellent examples available in Ireland.

If you want a cross between the rich caramel of a red ale and the lively carbonation of Bière de Garde, then you are probably looking for a Belgian Dubbel. High in carbonation, these beers lift the mouth-coating richness of gravy and mashed potatoes from the palate. Flavour-wise, the dubbel sports a one-two punch of dense dark fruit and peppery, clove-like phenol character that complements sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and the turkey itself. You don’t even need to pick a Belgian beer. You can keep it Irish by getting a 750ml bottle of White Gypsey’s Dubbel.

You have never experienced cheese if you haven’t paired it with beer. Wine is great for pairing with cheese but beer and cheese were made for each other. Blue cheese especially will shine with either a big imperial stout or a massively bitter double IPA. Get a selection of cheese and beer styles and enjoy discovering the perfect combination for yourself.

Beer and a bird 

And then there’s the bird itself. Turkey can be notoriously dry but does cooking with beer help? Yes it does. The following will provide the most succulently moist turkey you have ever had. I cooked this recently myself. The measurements are approximate and can be changed with little effect.

In a large pot, perhaps 15 litres, heat up 40g of wholegrain mustard or mustard seeds with six bay leaves as well as two tablespoons of whole black peppercorns. After a few minutes, add 130g each of dark brown sugar and salt. Add a little water and let the sugar and salt dissolve. Allow to cool while you prepare the turkey. Add two large onions, thickly chopped. Take five bottles of O’Hara’s stout (500ml) and add to the mix along with about five litres of water, depending on the size of your pot. Allow space for the turkey. Place the turkey in the pot breast side down and let it soak overnight in the brine and include 500g of thickly cut bacon strips. Try and submerge the whole turkey if you can.

To cook, place the turkey on a tray breast up. Add the onions to the tray bottom and perhaps some of the mustard seeds over the skin if you like. Pin the bacon strips to the turkey with cocktail sticks and cook the turkey as normal at 180c for about 3 hours, depending on what’s needed for your bird. No basting required.

The beer brining leaves the turkey moist and succulent while the beer caramelises on the skin and toasts it beautifully. The bacon will crisp and protect the turkey from burning. Your guests will be talking about Christmas dinner for days to come. You could also compliment your beer-brined turkey if you were to make a Christmas pudding using a stout like O’Hara’s. My mother used to use bottled Guinness but any bottled stout will do.

One last thing, most of the beers I mention have a rather high alcohol content. So be careful this Christmas. You want to have a Christmas you can actually remember so have a wonderful and, above all, responsible Christmas.

Reuben Gray is a freelance and beer writer. He is the author of and is also the Chairman of Beoir, Ireland’s beer consumer group.

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