I’d rather be drinking Belgian beer this Christmas

Pints | by Jason Foster

It is a thing in today’s beer world for a brewery to make holiday pints with festive spicing. Ingredients like clove, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg bring out what most people consider “Christmas” flavours. The spicing, combined with a malt base for gentle sweetness, dark fruit and a slight warming, results in beer perfectly appropriate for holiday celebrations.

I have been known to partake of a Christmas ale or two myself. I even brewed one once. But this year, I’m avoiding the usual holiday offerings. For my seasonal beer selections, I’m going Belgian.

Belgians have always approached beer differently than anyone else. They like to go big on the alcohol, and add quirky, angular flavours to make their beer more interesting. As a result, Belgian-style beer is not for everyone. They tend to be more complex, with an earthy and spicy character, and just generally don’t taste like regular beer.

But my gut tells me if someone likes a beer spiced with clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, they might be open to a Belgian ale. Those rich flavours, accented by an interesting spiciness, seem perfect for seasonal celebrations.

If you want a Christmas beer, go no further than St. Bernardus Christmas Ale. This laic brewery (it’s not connected to a monastery like many Belgian breweries) is known for high-quality, Abbey-style ales. Their annual Christmas ale has the kind of flavours holiday drinkers are looking for, but without adding a single spice — all the heavy lifting comes from the yeast. The beer starts with a caramel, dark fruit character, with raisin and plum a particular highlight. Then a complex yet rounded spiciness kicks in. I get clove, cinnamon, earthy pepper and other flavours. It seems to fit the season perfectly.

If you want to go Saskatchewan but keep with the X-mas theme, look no further than Paddock Wood Winter Ale. Officially a Belgian Dubbel, it’s got a similar combination of dark fruit, clove and earthy spice and a slight alcohol warming that fits with the season. The continually growing legion of Saskatchewan breweries — a beer patch that includes Black Bridge (Swift Current), Nokomis (Nokomis), Prairie Sun (Saskatoon), and Rebellion and Malty National (Regina), among others — undoubtedly have other similar offerings that didn’t reach my desk before press time. So don’t be shy — ask them what they have that works for X-mas!

When it comes to the holiday turkey dinner, amber lagers, brown ales, Irish red ales and the like are frequently suggested beer pairings. And they totally work. However, I have recently come to recognize the value of combining a Belgian Tripel with your turkey meal. In a way, it is perfect. Light bodied and effervescent, it’s not too demanding on the palate. Yet it brings a light pepperiness, an earthiness and hints of honey, light fruit (such as pear) and an alcohol warming that seems to match well with Christmas dinner (or as a digestive afterwards).

Classic examples available in these parts included Westmalle Tripel, Chimay White, Karmeliet Tripel and the version from the aforementioned St. Bernardus. Canadians outlets are slowly catching on to the Tripel’s divine character, but most offer it only as a seasonal. Unibroue, currently owned by a large multinational but still an amazing brewer of Belgian beer, has their Le Fin du Monde which would also work well.

If ham is more your thing, then you can turn to a Belgian blonde as nice complement. The ubiquitous examples (both corporate owned) include Leffe Blonde and Affligem. Both continue to be good interpretations of the style, despite their ownership. A Canadian option is Unibroue’s Blonde de Chambly (it’s important to distinguish it from their usual Blanche de Chambly, which is a completely different beer). Yes they, too, are corporate owned, but at least they’re made in Canada. Belgian Blonde is not a style regularly brewed in Canada by independent breweries.

Christmas drinking demands special beer, but there’s more out there than the well-tread spiced ale. You can get the same experience by shifting to beer made for generations by Belgian brewers. Enjoy!