Dean McGuinness brings the festive cheer by reviewing Rodenbach Alexander and Blitzen
Christmas is upon us, so as part of the planning for Christmas, we are looking at a couple of beers that would work well on Christmas Day. The beers for today are Rodenbach Alexander (suggested as a pairing for a turkey dinner), and Blitzen (a Christmas themed Ruby Ale).
Beers for Christmas –
Christmas is a special time, so it’s a good reason to treat yourself to a special beer. In its own way, every beer can be special, so how do we go about treating ourselves to a beer that is particularly special for Christmas? I can think of three categories of beers to be considered for Christmas, but these categories may overlap. Firstly, beers that pair well with Christmas dinner need to be considered – the first of our beers today is a suggestion for this. Secondly, Christmas themed beers always add to the festivity of the season, and our second beer, named for Santa’s best-known reindeer – fits the bill here. The third category is a broad category that is touched on implicitly in the above two beers, and it covers beers the style/flavour which works well in a season of indulgence. Both of the beers that we are tasting today meet this criteria, but in more broad terms, I give some suggestions as to things to look out for in beers that might trigger an idea as to a beer that one might pick out for Christmas.
Beer and Food Pairing – Christmas Day
We could do a whole show on pairing different aspects of a Christmas dinner with different beers. I have picked out one beer – Rodenbach Alexander – and I am suggesting that it would make a great accompaniment to the classic Turkey Christmas dinner. But first, some principles of beer and food pairing.
A significant study was conducted into what works in beer and food pairing, and the results are quite straightforward. Two broad types of pairing are suggested work well, and these broad principles can be applied to any food pairing. They can be summarised as two of four ‘C’s – ‘Compare’ and ‘Contrast’. We can add to this two other ‘C’s that work in beer and food pairing – ‘Cut’ and ‘Combine’.
Our study suggested that two types of pairing works well. ‘Compare’ pairings are where there is a common flavour between the beer and the food with which it is being paired. An example of this is pairing a dark stout with a char-grilled steak – the roast flavours of the stout bridge with the char of the steak and the result is a pairing that works well. The second type of pairing is where two flavours contrast – if the flavours were mapped out on a flavour map, they would tend to be on opposite ends of the map. Chocolate and orange is a classic example – chocolate is rich, dark and orange is zesty and bright. The pairing of Rodenbach Alexander that is outlined below can be considered as a reflection of either of these two principles – depending on whether the Christmas dinner includes a cranberry sauce or has a bright fruit in the stuffing.
‘Cut’ is a further principle in beer and food pairing. Beer is relatively acidic – even more so when the beer in question is a sour (a Flanders Red Ale). Because of this acidity, beer can cut through mouthcoating foodstuffs. This can work particularly well with a food stuff that is oily or fatty. In general, a classic turkey Christmas dinner does not have fat as a feature of the meat – turkey is a relatively lean meat. However, other elements of the dinner can have fatty elements – roast potatoes cooked in goose fat, or rich gravy can both have a certain amount of richness that can coat the tongue. The right beer with a good level of acidity can work to cleanse the palate between mouthfuls.
‘Combine’ is a complex principle in beer and food pairing that relates to how we process flavour in our brains. Sometimes our brains put together a number of individual flavours into one ‘Flavour Object’. The brain then registers the ‘Flavour Object’ rather than the individual flavours. An example would be tasting a Black Forest Gateau – the taster does not necessarily think of dark cherry, chocolate and cream as the individual elements of the flavour – rather they taste the overall experience of a Black Forest Gateau. Pairing a beer that tastes significantly of dark cherry and chocolate with a relatively straightforward sponge cake can transform the pairing experience into one where a Black Forest Gateau is being tasted. In terms of our Rodenbach Alexander pairing below, presenting the beer as the ‘Cranberry Sauce’ for the dinner (not to be put on the plate, but to be tasted with the dinner), can have the effect of integrating the beer into the overall flavour experience of the dinner.
Rodenbach Alexander –
Beer Style - Fruit (Cherry) Flanders Red Ale
Alcohol by Volume - 5.6% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Rodenbach Brewery
Brewed in - Roeselare, Belgium
Rodenbach Alexander is a fruit version of Rodenbach – the base Flanders Red Ale is infused with cherries, and the tart sour flavours of the base beer combines and develops the fruit infusion, and vice versa. Tasting this beer is a wonderful experience. We found as we did a (three person) tasting, that the flavours that developed in the beer evolved in a different sequence for the three different tasters, and the balance of the beer developed as the beer opened up.
Rodenbach Alexander presents with aromas of balsamic vinegar and cider vinegar, with background clove also present. As the beer opens, the fruit of the beer emerges more in the aroma, together with a lactic sweetness and these dimensions complement the tartness of the base beer aromas.
This beer is distinctly tart and acidic on the palate. On tasting, mouthwatering tart cherry and cider vinegar flavours predominate. The sweetness of the cherry flavour combines with the tartness to provide a sweet/sour character to the beer. A layered beer, flavours of almond and bright, tangy green apple and apple drops emerge. The almond character combines with the cherry flavour in the beer to give the impression of a bakewell tart. The tartness is mouthwatering, and the beer serves to cleanse the palate like a fine sorbet. Lactic sweetness develops in the flavour of the beer in subsequent tastings. This lactic dimensions rounds the tart acidity of the beer, and adds to the beer’s complexity.
I am suggesting Rodenbach Alexander as a delicious accompaniment to a turkey Christmas dinner. Tying in this pairing to the food pairing principles outlined above all depends on how the pairing is presented, and the detail of the Christmas dinner. If Rodenbach Alexander is presented as the ‘Liquid Cranberry Sauce Accompaniment/Drink’ for the dinner, this integrates the idea of the cherry flavour in the beer into the overall dinner experience. Just as a touch of cranberry sauce might be added to a mouthful as the dinner is eaten, so too might one enjoy a mouthful of Alexander with a mouthful of food, allowing the tart cherry flavour of the beer to integrate with the turkey and veg/potato elements of the dinner.
Whether Rodenbach Alexander is considered to be a ‘Compare’ pairing or a ‘Contrast’ pairing depends on the details of the dinner. If a chutney is being served with the dinner, then this would bridge with the fruit and sour tartness of the beer. If the stuffing for the turkey incorporated a fruit element (e.g. an apricot or cranberry stuffing), this would serve to bridge the flavours of the beer with the food in the pairing. In such a case, this could also be considered to be a ‘Compare’ pairing.
Alternatively, the beer itself could be considered to be a ‘Contrast’ pairing if the dinner did not include elements similar to the above. In the absence of a chutney, fruit ingredient in the stuffing or a cranberry sauce, Rodenbach Alexander could serve to fill this function as part of the dish. This would be a ‘Contrast’ pairing, as there would not be an element within the dish to ‘bridge’ the pairing, as is the case when the pairing is presented as a ‘Compare’ pairing above.
Finally, the tart acidity of Rodenbach Alexander is evident from the first sip through on tasting the beer. This beer acts as a perfect palate cleanser – a sorbet – for the dinner. This tartness triggers a mouthwatering reaction to the beer which further cleanses the palate.
Christmas Themed Beers and Beer Styles for Christmas –
In my opinion, Christmas themed beers add to the festivity of the Christmas season. Our second beer – Blitzen – is a perfect example. There seems to be a divergence of opinion these days as to what should be left out for Santa. Some argue that Santa has a long night of work, and having a beer in every single house might be too much, so the preferred option is a glass of milk. In these times where moderation is the order of the day, maybe every single house should not be giving a beer to Santa. However, I expect he would enjoy one every now and then, and if so, a Christmas themed beer would seem to be the perfect option. Moms and Dads around the country can decide what works best when organising things with their kids on Christmas morning.
In terms of styles of beers that work well for Christmas, often Christmas themed beers incorporate elements that are appropriate to the season. There are no hard and fast rules as to what makes the perfect Christmas beer, but some things seem to pop up when considering the elements of a beer that work well at Christmas time.
More often than not, Christmas beers tend to be above average strength – that extra alcohol can provide a warming dimension in the beer. However, some clever brewers (such as is the case with Blitzen) brew their beer to a more standard strength, and deliver a strength of flavour in the robustness of the character of the beer. Dark malts can also add a dimension of flavour that is appropriate in a beer for a winter season. Likewise, spice character in the beer can give a warming, comforting dimension to the beer. Barrel Aged beers – often fuller in character, and usually above average strength – tend to rise in popularity around Christmas/Winter. I suspect that a bottle of Chimay Oak Aged will be opened on Christmas Day in our house to meet with this idea.
Beer Style - Ruby Christmas Ale
Alcohol by Volume - 4.0% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Black Sheep Brewery
Brewed in - Masham, Yorkshire
Blitzen is a fun, ruby Christmas ale that packs a punch of flavour in a beer with only 4.0% a.b.v. The label presents the iconic Black Sheep of the brewery with a Santa hat in a pine forest, snowy setting, and lavishes Christmas colours – greens and reds – to strongly let the beer drinker know that this is a bottle for the Christmas season.
On pouring the beer, this beer is distinctly ruby red, with an off-white/tan head. However, the aromas in the beer surprise and delight – full and rich, appropriate to the Christmas season and delivering much more than one might expect from a 4% a.b.v. beer. Burnt sugar, roast, cocoa, chocolate and cappuccino combine with malty toasty aromas. A blend of earthy English hops (Goldings) integrates with the malt aromas, with background suggestions of pine and citrus from the second hop in the beer (Cascade).
The dark malt character develops in the taste of the beer. Roast acidity is in evidence, and combines with cola cube, coffee and toasty malt character. Burnt sugar – muscovado sugar – emerges in the flavour, together with suggestions of orange peel and background citrus the emerges as the beer warms and opens. The flavour of the beer is further developed with notes of spice. Nutmeg and cinnamon are present as delicate accompaniments. Cracked black peppercorn is present in the finish, and this further develops in the finish of the beer.
Blitzen is a superb Christmas treat. At a time of the year when we indulge a bit more, it is great to have a Christmas themed beer that does not hold back on the flavour that it delivers, but does so in the package of a beer with only 4% a.b.v.
Maybe Santa would appreciate a bottle of this to be left out for him – maybe not at every single house, but a few as he completes his work would, I expect, be appreciated.