By Gary Glancy
The holidays are just around the corner, and that means it’s time for the most wonderful beers of the year.
The brewing world has a long history of special, hearty libations created to celebrate the holiday season and keep us all warm and happy through the brunt of winter. In a chestnut shell, these seasonal brews have more malt, more hops, more alcohol, more unique ingredients.
Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco is widely regarded as having produced the first seasonal holiday beer by an American brewery since Prohibition, when it released the company’s still-going Our Special Ale in 1975. While the recipe for that beer changes every year, it is characterized annually by the addition of spices such as nutmeg and clove.
Other brewers from around the country followed suit, including our own Highland Brewing Co., which started Western North Carolina’s nationally renowned craft beer scene when it opened back in 1994. Highland’s Cold Mountain Winter Ale—a brown/reddish-colored ale released around Thanksgiving each year amid a buzz of anticipation and excitement—has become an iconic and sought-after brew in the Southeast and beyond. The secret recipe, which like Our Special Ale also gets tweaked annually, includes such additions as vanilla, berries and myriad spices.
Not all breweries, however, spice up their special holiday brew. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Mills River had a much different take on the style as a second-year company in California back in 1981. Celebration Ale was one of the first examples of an American-style India Pale Ale (IPA), a hoppy but perfectly balanced beer that utilizes the freshest of hops from the Pacific Northwest. The beer is smooth and warming on a cold winter night, and goes wonderfully with roasted turkey and dressing—perfect for Christmas dinner.
And that brings us to another allure of holiday beers…food pairings!
Most of us love to eat around the holidays and these unique offerings from beer makers can make a delicious accompaniment for holiday party foods from cheeses to cookies, as well as family meals from fish and game meats to decadent desserts.
Holiday beers that are among the most conducive to pairing with hearty holiday dishes include many different Belgian styles, with their complexity and characteristic spiciness derived from special yeast strains, and barley wine-style ales, whose bold maltiness blends beautifully with rich meats and sauces as well as sweet desserts.
It would take this entire magazine to talk about all the different seasonal holiday beers our local breweries are producing. With several dozen craft companies from Asheville to Waynesville and all around the mountains, each one puts their own spin and personal touch on what a special offering for the season should look, smell and taste like.
It can be overwhelming trying to choose the perfect one for your dinner or party table, but exploring and sampling is what makes it fun.
Gary Glancy is a freelance writer, bartender and Certified Cicerone® living in Hendersonville.