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The Serious Eats Guide to Holiday Beer Pairing

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Whether the holidays make you think of sugar plums and snowmen or overly opinionated family members and a roast burning in the oven, there's one thing that seems to draw folks together like nothing else this time of year: booze. Festive meals present the perfect opportunity for breaking open some special bottles with friends and family. Here's our guide to the best beer options for several possible holiday feasts.

Rack of Lamb

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Rich and fatty with a smack of gaminess, rack of lamb requires a pretty big beer. Bitterness, carbonation, and alcohol are all useful tools for ensuring that your beverage doesn't get lost amidst all that lambtensity (that's lamb intensity—you're welcome Merriam Webster).

Try a Belgian dubbel. Generally speaking, these have a lively carbonation to help the beer's dark fruit and spice character make it through all that mouth-coating lamb fat to interact nicely with the flavor of the meat.

If you've got a family of hopheads, a black IPA would work as well. The bitterness of roasted malt and a healthy dose of hops will assert the beer's presence and provide contrast to the umami and fat of the meat.

Beers to try: Chimay Première (that's the red one) or Firestone Walker Wookey Jack.

Duck or Goose

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Dubbel is also great with duck or goose. The rich and earthy flavor of these birds requires a beer with some heft to it and the dense, dried fruit flavor of dubbel recalls the dark berry sauces that are so commonly served with these birds.

Doppelbock offers another riff on this idea, offering strength and dark berry flavors amidst those of caramel, plums, and figs.

Beers to try: For dubbel, look to the Chimay above, or grab a Rochefort 6 or Ommegang Abbey Ale. For doppelbock, Ayinger's Celebrator and Weihenstephan's Korbinian are awesome, widely-available choices.

Glazed Ham with Mustard

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[Photo: Joshua Bousel]

The sweet and salty twang of honey- or maple-glazed ham is a classic holiday offering traditionally served with a slathering of mustard. Salty, acidic, and sweet together point to a beer that should have a little bit of sweetness to it. Seek a lower-alcohol German wheat beer: Hefeweizen and dunkelweizen work equally well here, and you'll have no problem tracking them down. The beer's hint of fruity sweetness offers a satisfying counterpoint to the saltiness of the ham and avoids pulling excessively sharp flavors from the accompanying mustard. The style's clove-like aromatics latch right in and add complexity to the pairing.

Beers to try: Schneider, Weihenstephan, Paulaner, Franziskaner, and Sierra Nevada all make wonderful, widely-available examples of the style.

Not into the cloudy stuff? A lager like Märzen, dunkel, or bock will work very nicely as well. These beers have a malty fullness that will similarly balance the sharpness of mustard and find a strong affinity to the flavor of the ham's glazing. Rauchbier would take things to the next level by adding a layer of smoky depth to the equation.

Beers to try: Mahr's Bock, Andechser Dunkel, or Ayinger's Oktober Fest-Märzen are all good choices, and anything from Aecht Schlenkerla (especially the Weizen) will satisfy the smoked beer lovers at your table. This is also not a bad place to bust out those malty, spiced Christmas ales you've got kicking around.

Prime Rib

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[Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If you're making prime rib, look toward porter. Dark roasted malt character recalls the charred surface of red meat thrown on the grill—it's an understandably compatible flavor. The touch of bitterness from the roasted malt will offer a nice taste contrast to the mouth-coating richness of beef fat as well.

Avoid the most aggressive "imperial" takes on these styles—with the glut of 10%+ ABV, ultra-bitter variations in the market right now, it's easy to pick a beer that will overpower your meat.

Beers to try: Fuller's London Porter or Deschutes Black Butte Porter.

ESB is delicious with prime rib as well, especially if you can get your hands on a fresh bottle. Not only will the beer's caramelly, bready malt flavor match the meat's oven-roasted caramelization, but it will also provide an earthy, peppery hop bitterness that will effortlessly tie in the roasted veggies that will inevitably be served with your beef. Look for locally-made examples—I'm often disappointed in the freshness of bottles from overseas.

Beer to try: Alesmith's Anvil ESB is one of our favorites.

Crab

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[Photograph: Fred Benenson on Flickr]

If you're celebrating crab season at your Christmas dinner, look to Belgium for beer ideas. Gueuze and wit, two classic Belgian styles, will both make an excellent accompaniment to boiled or steamed crab with drawn butter.

Traditional gueuze (pronounced something like "HYUR-zuh") is a blend of unflavored, unsweetened lambic—it's dry and sour, often with a surprising minerality that works wonders with shellfish. The beer's lemon-like acidity functions just as a spritz of citrus would on this dish—it will refresh, brighten, and help create a flavor connection if the dish contains any actual lemon juice.

Beers to try: Look for examples from Tilquin (Oude Gueuze Tilquin à l'Ancienne) or Drie Fonteinen (Oude Geuze)—they are dry and crab-friendly (plus not too hard to track down.)

Witbier offers a less funky approach that may work better if your crowd isn't very adventurous. (But you never know—try the gueuze above and Grandma may discover that she loves sour beers!) A gentle wheat sweetness matches the sweetness of crabmeat and the beer's subtle coriander and orange peel spicing serves to complement the simply prepared crab.

Beers to try: St. Bernardus Wit, Allagash White, and Hitachino Nest White Ale are all tasty examples of the style that should be available near you.

Looking for a pairing for a dish we haven't covered? Chime in below!

About the author: Mike Reis is a Certified Cicerone working as Minister of Education for California-based distributor Lime Ventures. Previously, he co-managed the beer program at San Francisco's Abbot's Cellar and The Monk's Kettle. Follow him on Twitter @beerspeaks or find him behind a pint near you.

Schlenkerla, Mahr's bock, and Drie Fonteinen are part of the Lime Ventures portfolio.

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