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You had the decapitated mannequin in the front yard. The spooky lighting was lit. The creepy sound effects record from the 1960s was blaring from the turntable. You donned your demon surgeon costume, complete with bloody bone saw. There was maybe even dry ice fog streaming from a basement window. You were set to scare the heck out of some unsuspecting trick-or-treaters and then reward their fearlessness with a bounty of sugary treats. The only problem was, not many kids showed up.
Now what? You're stuck with buckets and bags full of candy. Might as well throw a party and serve all that candy with beer.
A Few General Pointers
The task at hand is to find the best beer to go with each type of treat.
Finding the right beer to go with Halloween candy is not exactly like setting up pairings for truffles, crêpes and crème brûlée. Halloween candy is so monstrously sugary that you need a pretty hefty beer to stand up to it. The old pairing adage of keeping the beer sweeter than the dessert is nearly impossible.
Instead, the best-tasting results will be from beers with some sweetness that also have a bit of moderating contrast from roasty malt or sourness. Too much bitterness, especially from hops, creates some horrifying combinations.
I've broken down your standard Halloween candy in a few different categories, with pairing tips for each group.
Let's start with Snickers. The pairing is easy: grab a milk stout. The beer's bitter roast cuts the sugar even as the nutty candy's sweetness pulls out the caramel in the beer. The salty nuts pop out on top. It's a beautiful thing.
Say you're drowning in Milky Way bars. Here are two suggestions: the same milk stout you've got above is a good choice here as well. Another good option is English barleywine. Hops provide the contrast, but they are mild enough to avoid becoming harsh. Rich, caramel malt does a delightful danse macabre with the creamy nougat.
A wafer bar like Kit Kat is perfect with a brown ale aged in a bourbon barrel. Barrel aging adds nice vanilla overtones that tie in beautifully to the vanilla flavoring of the crispy wafer center.
You can't talk about peanut butter candy without starting with Reese's Cups. And luckily, they're awesome with beer. Try the nutty treat with chocolaty sweet or imperial stout. The basis for the pairing is right there in the Reese's marketing; chocolate and peanut butter are two great tastes that taste great together.
A more interesting pairing to the classic peanut butter cup is a sweetened fruit lambic. These gently tart dessert beers bring a refreshing contrast to the salty sweet candy. It's like eating a PB&J on chocolate bread.
Sour and Fruity
Though it's tricky to pair sour and fruity candy with spirits, these puckering sweets are stupendous with Flemish red ales. In fact, of all the pairings we tried, these were my favorites. But be ready to have your head blown off by the intensity of these combinations. The first thing to hit is jaw-locking sourness. Once that subsides, your mouth is flooded by a tsunami of juicy fruit.
The combination of these candies with a citrusy, American IPA brings a flavor sensation that is nearly as intense, but emphasizes bitter rather than sour. That familiar grapefruit hop flavor goes from being merely grapefruit-like to so closely resembling the real thing that you might be tricked into believing you were drinking unsweetened juice. But amplified bitterness is at the center of this pairing and it's not for the faint of heart.
Candy corn gets its buttery taste from a flavoring chemical called diacetyl. This makes it a perfect match to English ESB, which often has subtle notes of diacetyl as well. The buttery, toffee character of the malt is just right with the flavor of the candy. Grassy hops and firm bitterness provide just enough balance to cut the sugar.
This buttery candy also works well with American or English IPAs, making the citrusy hops pop and pulling out the otherwise hidden malt. The combination brings in interesting floral notes that aren't present in the beer alone.
Some Beers to Try
Brau Brothers Moo Joos: This silky oatmeal milk stout has rich chocolaty flavors and just a bit of bitter roast.
Left Hand Milk Stout: Cocoa and bittersweet chocolate form the flavor center of this beer from Colorado.
Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout: This one's thick and a little bit sweet; it tastes like chocolate covered espresso beans.
Bourbon-Barrel Brown Ale
Tyranena Rocky's Revenge: Half of what goes into this beer is aged in bourbon barrels, giving it loads of creamy vanilla flavors, but only subtle bourbon.
Pale Ales and IPAs
Lagunitas IPA: It's bold and bitter with loads of grapefruit hop flavor. It works perfectly with those fruit candies.
Fuller's ESB: This is the original ESB. The toffee malt and grassy hops are deepened by hints of yeast-derived buttery flavors.
Cuvee des Jacobins Rouge: This amazing Flemish red ale brings tart and funky flavors that change with every sip.
Rodenbach Classic: A little less tart and woody than Rodenbach Grand Cru, Classic still brings the signature Rodenbach fruit and funk.
Lindemans Framboise: The quintessential sweetened lambic, Framboise is loaded with juicy raspberry. It's sweet, but still retains just a bit of the sour.
About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, the City Pages Hot Dish Blog, and in respected national beer magazines. He is the author of an upcoming travel guide to breweries in the upper Midwest, due out this fall from the University of Illinois Press. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint