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Some of my fondest memories of Christmases past are of hanging out in the kitchen with my mom as she baked batch after batch of cookies; cutting shapes with the plastic cookie cutters, getting covered in flour, and eating raw dough. Okay, I also ate little balls of Crisco, but that's a story for another time.
Back in the day, those cookies were washed down with a tall glass of milk, but these days I'm partial to a mug of craft-brewed suds. Whether you're hosting a cookie swap party or delivering some gifts by way of reindeer-and-chimney, consider pouring a beer alongside your holiday dessert.
But which beer, you ask? Porters and stouts are a good place to start, along with barleywines, old ales and sweetened fruit lambics. But don't be afraid to go out on a limb. The citrusy zip of an American IPA creates surprising synergy with certain spiced cookies. Yeasty Belgians, fluffy wheats and lighter lagers can create magic as well. Here's my guide to the best beers to pair with different types of Christmas cookies.
Sugar & Butter
It almost wouldn't be Christmas without frosted and sprinkled sugar cookies and butter cookies. But they're even better with a beer that has prominent bready malt and light stone-fruit flavors. Look for Belgian blond ales like Grimbergen or Omer Blonde, as well as stronger golden ales like Duvel or Victory Golden Monkey. The malt in these beers pulls up the bready character of the cookie as the yeasty fruit and spice works to tone down the sweet sugar sprinkles or frosting. Fizzy carbonation washes it all away.
Beers with more obvious stone fruit flavors like Lindemans Peche or Chapeau Abricot combine with the cookies to create instant cobbler. The bit of acidity that remains in these sweetened lambics softens the sugary blow. It's a magical combination.
My mom's holiday favorite is the Snickerdoodle, a classic sugar cookie with a cinnamon-sugar addition. Try them with Shiner Holiday Cheer, a hefeweizen brewed with toasted pecans and Texas peaches. Clove flavors in the beer work with the cinnamon to turn the illusion of cobbler up a notch.
For many, gingery spice is the flavor of the season. Whether you're munching gingerbread, ginger snaps, or ginger molasses cookies, pick big beers with citrusy hops for a pairing that pops. American-style barleywines are perfect. Beers like Sierra Nevada Bigfoot or Avery Hog Heaven have aggressive hoppiness that melds perfectly with the ginger. The massive, malty base softens the spice and pulls out brown sugar and molasses from the cookies. An English IPA like Meantime India Pale Ale can work here as well. English IPA has a more substantial malt backbone than American, which give the pairing better spice/sweet balance.
A big, sweet stout is another delicious option. Strong molasses flavors in North Coast's Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout cozy up to the cookie's molasses and brown sugar base. Rich chocolate and ample residual sugar offer tasty contrasts that tone down the ginger spice.
Chocolate cookies do well with stouts of all kinds. For a roasty-bitter contrast, choose a simple Irish dry stout like Guinness or Murphy's. A milk or oatmeal stout will balance the pairing, complementing the rich sweetness of the cookies. Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout remains one of the best and is lovely here. Tallgrass Buffalo Sweat is a milk stout with a slightly more bitter edge that pulls out bittersweet cocoa flavors from the cookies. For an over-the-top chocolate orgy, pick Young's Double Chocolate Stout. The pairing is an all-out chocolate assault, but the beer has enough roast to give a bit of balance to the experience.
Mint and beer? Sure, why not? If your chocolate cookies or chocolate bark has the addition of peppermint (like this recipe for chocolate mint thumbprints), choose a hoppy imperial stout like Victory Storm King—the hops add a hint of herbal flavor that complements the mint nicely.
If your chocolate cookies have peanut butter in the mix, try them paired with Lindemans or Timmermans Framboise—it's like eating a peanut butter sandwich on chocolate bread. Paired with Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout this combination evokes Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Mmmmm.
Fruit & Nuts
My favorite Christmas cookies as a kid were powdered-sugar-covered pecan snowballs. These nutty little gems call for a nutty kind of beer, and bown ales fit the bill. Just a small step down from porters and stouts, brown ales still have a bit of roasted-malt bitterness to cut the sweetness of the cookies, but the dominant nutty and caramel flavors are the star of the pairing. These beers are practically made for pecans. Choose a malty English-style brown like Avery Ellie's Brown Ale or Newcastle (from a can). If you want to go a little darker, try Pecan Porter from 512 Brewing Company. The pecan flavor really comes through, making it a perfect match.
Almond biscotti are a holiday standard in some households. These cookies often dipped into hot coffee, but it's fun to try them with a coffee-flavored beer. Kona Brewing Company's Pipeline Porter is one of the best. 100% Kona-grown beans give the beer a smooth coffee bitterness that balances the sweetness while caramel malt undertones pick up the almonds. Hinterland Luna Coffee Stout is sharper and roastier, creating a pairing that is all about smoky and bitter contrast.
One unique beer to try this Christmas is Lift Bridge Brewery's Biscotti . The beer was inspired by the owner's grandmother's biscotti recipe. It's a Belgian-style confection overflowing with notes of toast, nuts, and dark fruits that work in harmony with all the flavors of the cookie.
If your cookies are filled with jam, try them with a light and fruity wheat beer. It's almost like liquid and solid versions of the same thing; bready wheat and shortbread, fruit juice and jam. Try Pyramid Apricot Ale with apricot-filled cookies or Seadog Raspberry Wheat with the raspberry-filled version. Fruit lambics are another option here. Oud Beersel Framboise is a great non-sweetened, raspberry lambic that isn't too funky and sour, and it's delicious with cookies.
Do you like to wash down your holiday cookies with a beer? Do you leave Santa a sixpack to sip on? What's your favorite beer and cookie combination?
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 spring from the University of Illinois Press. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint.