Pondering which beers to serve with the upcoming Easter meal got me thinking about the celebration itself. And you know, I gotta say, as holidays go, Easter is a bit silly. At least on the surface, in the way we Americans do it. (Of course, to a devout agnostic, all Americanized, religiously affiliated holidays seem a bit silly, above and below the surface.)
Take, for instance, the issue of the “mascot.” The most widely recognized symbol for this most solemn day on the Christian calendar is the “Easter bunny,” an anthropomorphic, often goofy-looking rabbit who travels around the world in the wee hours of a single morning (presumably, since rabbits are crepuscular), moving Santa-like from house to house, delivering to children an odd assortment of “goodies” that can include eggs (highly decorated and hard-boiled), candy (everything from milk chocolates to sticky, sugar-gritty marshmallow “Peeps” to tart Jelly Beans — seriously, “beans”? and in fruit flavors and licorice?), along with toys, games, and clothing (at least in my house).
Are you with me so far? Good, because this is the part that has always baffled me, even as a kid — to deliver his goods, the rabbit carries a basket, a large one, in fact, with a big, looping handle and lots of ribbons and decorations. Now, where does he get the basket? Is there a Mrs. Easter Bunny? If so, does she help him to decorate and pack up the night before? Do his children do some of the prep work, too, or does he employ elves? And how does he hold the basket? With both forepaws? If so, how does he hop, upright? The only way I’ve ever seen a rabbit move is by staccato-like hopping on all fours. So maybe the Easter Bunny has figured out how to carry the basket with one front paw and do a modified three-legged hop. But around the world? And in one day? Good luck with that. If I were the bunny, I’d apply for a license to drive a ruminant-powered, airborne sled.
(There’s plenty to chuckle about in terms of the religious ritual itself, but I’m not brave enough to mention that here — as I said, I’m an agnostic not an atheist. But I am willing to share a laugh over the claim by H. L. Mencken that his favorite annual activity on Good Friday, his favorite holiday, is “to heave a dead cat” through the open doors of the nearest church.)
When it comes to the food that’s served and consumed as part of the celebration, Easter gets even sillier. At my family’s table, you can often find a comical bounty of food types — everything from baked ham or roast leg of lamb, to potatoes (whipped, baked, scalloped, or shredded), deviled eggs, vegetables (carrots, asparagus, green beans), a salad (leafy or some gelatinous concoction with chunks of fruit, cream, and marshmallows), several kinds of bread (frosted, crossed, or plain-grainy), along with dishes of nuts, pickles, olives, chutneys, etc. There’s also dessert, which is usually set out alongside the main dishes and can include everything from all the aforementioned candy to sugar cookies, several pies (lemon meringue, lemon cream, chocolate, etc.), and a lamb-shaped coconut cake (though never as creepy-looking as this one). Thus, in terms of the five senses, our Easter meal hops all over the place.
Because the food is often served buffet-style, with everyone cramming as much of each course as they can on a single plate, the cross I bear should be obvious — find a beverage, preferably beer, that will pair well with this absurd agglomeration of comestibles, one that won’t fill you up, or won’t overwhelm the subtle (or be overrun by the bold) flavors in the food. And I thought Thanksgiving was tricky. The beer experts I consulted with recommend several choices, but there wasn’t a clear winner to me.
For instance, Garrett Oliver suggests an Irish stout, which is rich and sweet and an excellent match for the sugary glaze on the ham or the smoky, caramelized flavors in roast lamb. But I think stout will be too heavy for some of the more delicate items on the plate. Others proffer a pilsner or Oktoberfest, which also are slightly sweet but light enough in flavor and texture to complement scalloped potatoes or a slice of freshly baked wheat bread. But I’m afraid neither beer will have the carbonated prowess or malt feistiness to fend off the tongue-coating creamy, fruity stuff. And what about those stuffy deviled eggs (capers, mustard, and mayo, oh my!) or those herb-emboldened veggies? What can stand up to them? Or, for that matter, all those sugar-shagged desserts?
There is another option, one that is often sweet without being syrupy, light in texture but with lots of scrubbing bubbles, and full of rich, complex, aromatic flavors that meld equally well with the treats from the field, the garden, or the sugar mill. And that choice is a Belgian ale, in this case either a dubbel or tripel. However, these beers tend to walk on the wild side, compared to most of their counterparts on your merchant’s shelves — sometimes unfiltered or unpasteurized, often bottle-conditioned (which can produce inconsistencies, cork to cork), and usually much higher in alcohol content. But since I’ve recently written about the other styles mentioned above (for instance, here and here), I decided to act a little silly (like “some bunny” we know) and proclaim Belgium as the place to “be” for Easter. None of the following beers will pair well with everything on your plate — I doubt there’s a single solution to this meal-puzzler anywhere — but I think that all will cozy up nicely to most of the ingredients.
Resurrection Ale, The Brewer’s Art. As soon as I decided on Belgians, I knew I had to include this flagship beer from the Baltimore-based restaurant (though the beer is now brewed and bottled offsite in Royersford, Pennsylvania). I mean, come on — could there be a more aptly titled beer for Easter? This beautiful amber Abbey-style dubbel offers a rich, sweet fullness with an intriguing array of flavors, from orange and raisins to wheat bread to vanilla and root beer. There’s a slight whiff of alcohol (7%) at first, a noticeable but mild and pleasing hop bitterness, and a rush of carbonation that helps fill the mouth with flavor. I’ve had Resurrection on draft many times, and it’s every bit as good poured from the bottle. I also tried (and enjoyed) the Green Peppercorn Tripel, a zesty (9% alcohol), aromatic, golden ale from the same brewery, partly because I liked saying the name and because the label claims a portion of the proceeds benefit area literacy programs. That, too, seemed an apt gesture in the spirit of the holiday.
Gouden Carolus Easter Beer, Brouwerij Het Anker, and St. Bernardus PaasBier, Brouwerij St. Bernard. These are the two other nominally appropriate beers that I had wanted to try, but I couldn’t find a bottle of either in time for this review. Apparently, many Belgians produce a special Easter brew that, like some of the Christmas ales I wrote about last winter, carry hints of fruit and spice but are lighter in color and texture and more closely akin to an American lager. One review I read for the Gouden Carolus, a Belgian strong dark ale (10% alcohol), said it had light carbonation, traces of orange-lemon citrus, fig, mint and other flavors, and it definitely “tastes like Easter.” Look for similar options from other Belgian brewers, such as St.-Feuillien and Grimbergen. I did get my hands on the St. Bernardus Abt 12, a bottle-conditioned dubbel ale (10% alcohol) that was ruddy-brown in color with a slightly sweet, yeasty, balanced bouquet of subtle flavors. If I can’t find the Paas by Sunday, this will suit my needs “eggs-actly.”
Solstice d’hiver, Brasserie Dieu du Ciel. Jed, my go-to “beer guy” at The Wine Source, suggested that this “noble beer” (I noticed that most of the Belgian breweries refer to their beers in this way), though brewed big for winter consumption (10% alcohol), might serve as a good Easter-meal accompaniment. And he was right. Although technically a barley wine, a style that can be a bit malt-heavy and is usually served after dinner like port, this beer is surprisingly juicy and light. There is lots of bright fruitiness and a citrusy hop aroma that, mixed with its style’s more common roasted, round flavors, would make it a bunny-trail buddy for the main courses (the smoky ham and various salads, in particular), as well as the desserts.
Beersel Lager, Drie Fonteinen Brewery. Jed also suggested this unusual hybrid — a lambic brewed to act like a German lager. Why is this unusual? If you can imagine pouring a raspberry wine cooler into a Beck’s, you’ll have an idea. But this novelty works — possibly because the brewer uses unfiltered and unpasteurized ingredients that are refermented in the bottle, creating a wild, sharp, fruity (like apple cider) beer that is smooth and full-bodied . I imagine it could pair well with either ham or lamb, and the light potatoes and salads, but it would really get hopping with the lemon meringue pie.
Sint Canarus, De Proef. This Belgian tripel (7.5% alcohol), a product of “Downtown Gottem City” (as the label proclaims), is so full of life and a yeasty, floral bouquet that it literally bubbled out of the bottle when I opened it. Although there was no cork, the experience was much like a burst of Champagne (or Peter’s volcano) — misty, bright, and golden, with slightly sour, earthy aromas that fill the nose, and a lacy foam that lined the glass. It was not as dry and spicy as the Green Peppercorn and, with a slightly sweeter and more refreshing aftertaste, could ham it up at the beginning of dinner or be dandy with the candy at the end.
As always, please leave a comment to let me know what you think. Are there beers that I missed? Do you prefer wine over beer to accompany the Easter meal?
Originally posted on April 7, 2009.