The holidays are upon us, and that can only mean one thing:
Something spicy: Burning Phoenix
Sure, it might seem odd that we start our Thanksgiving and Christmas beer-food pairings recommendations with a spicy beer, but we do things a bit differently here at Four One Brew. So while we’ll get to more traditional winter warmers in a bit, we start in Lawrenceville, where a new beer has emerged, one that might just become my favorite beer ever.
11th Hour Brewing unveiled this gem Thursday night. I stopped by before they opened for a sneak preview, and I honestly cannot stop thinking about this beer.
“The people who love it, love it,” said 11th Hour’s head brewer Matt McMahon as he poured me a 10-ounce sampler. “Of course, some people think it’s too hot.”
I don’t. Burning Phoenix starts out smooth, with subtle hop notes, before you start to feel it. The burn begins in the back of the mouth, then moves to the throat. It’s not eye-watering spicy, but the jalapeños definitely announce their presence.
“It has an even heat,” McMahon said. “It doesn’t build up like hot wings, which get hotter with each one. This hits a certain level and stays there.”
11th Hour’s jalapeno beer became a thing about 3 1/2 years ago, well before the brewery at 3711 Charlotte St. opened. McMahon, then still a homebrewer aspiring to be a craft brewer, made a five-gallon batch of pale ale.
“I had more wort than I could use, so I poured it into a growler, tossed in some jalapeños and yeast and it fermented,” he said. “I tried it and said, ‘OK, this is pretty good.’ Then I tried a larger batch, took it to a beer festival, and people were coming back and coming back and coming back.”
For his latest batch, McMahon used 120 pounds of jalapeños to make 550 gallons. “It felt like we all got maced,” he said of brew day.
As for food pairings, McMahon recommends serving Burning Phoenix with a spicy cheese dip as a Thanksgiving hors d’oeuvres. It also goes with a jalapeño cheddar corn bread and can be used to cook chili or beer battered chicken.
If it’s too hot — and McMahon expects to find many half-full glasses at the brewery — try mixing it with the Beta Brown Ale. I tried it. But I won’t again. The brown ale washes away too much of the jalapeño flavor, and I like my beer spicy.
“It’s a perfect winter beer for us,” McMahon said. “You’re cold? Come have a jalapeño beer and warm up.”
A classic: Table Beer
Next, we head to Braddock, home of Brew Gentlemen, which has been turning heads and winning national awards pretty much since they opened in 2014.
Table Beer is a Belgian saison that is aged for several months in oak foeders (or, wooden barrels) and naturally conditioned in the bottle. Table beers are traditionally very low on alcohol — as low as 1 or 2 percent — but Brew Gentlemen’s version checks in at 4.8.
There’s a lot going on with this beer: Layered notes of fruit, a gentle sourness and a crisp mouthfeel.
“It’s meant to pair with food,” brewery co-founder Matt Katase said. “It’s lightly tart, low in ABV — it’s just meant to be the bottle you grab when you got to a BYOB restaurant or when eating at someone else’s house.”
It pairs perfectly with turkey, stuffing, any casserole … “it’s going to morph to any food you want,” said Pete Kurzweg, co-owner of the Independent Brewing Co. in Squirrel Hill, which had the only Table Beer (which comes in a wine bottle) I could find in the city. “That’s exactly what they designed Table Beer to be. That’s the one I’m going to want during my meal.”
Table Beer is a limited-run seasonal pick. It will be available at the Brewery (512 Braddock Ave.) starting Wednesday. The Independent (1704 Shady Ave.) also has some in stock.
A marvelous malt: St. Nikolaus Bock
The original, the local favorite and still the king.
St Nik’s is the annual winter beer released by Penn Brewery in Troy Hill that over the years has earned a faithful following and multiple awards. When you think holidays in Pittsburgh, you think St. Nik’s.
Penn’s head brewer Nick Rosich says the dark, malty and smooth bock goes well with any number of meals.
“Braised meats, grilled or roasted meats (including turkey), any cured meat — something to help accentuate the umami,” he said. “It’s also a good desert beer. Anything that has chocolate, anything nut-centric.”
Penn Brewery sells holiday three-packs of 22-ounce bottles from 2015, 2016 and 2017 for $30. Rosich says he is also preparing a barrel-aged version that should be ready by Christmas. Using a barrel from Wigle Wiskey that was used to distill last year’s St. Nik into a whiskey, Rosich will use the barrel to age the new version for one month before unveiling it to the public. St. Nik’s usually runs dry around Christmas. The barrel-aged will be gone in days.
As for Rosich, he’ll actually be drinking Penn Brewery’s Kaiser Pils on Thanksgiving.
“I do the cooking,” he explained. “I’m smoking a turkey and a pastrami, which takes five to six hours.” So to keep his wits about him, he’ll stick to Kaiser and its lower 4.5 percent ABV, as opposed to St. Nik which check in a more stout 6.5 percent, or higher for the St. Nik reserve.
The award winner: Heini’s Good Cheer
I haven’t tried this one yet — it won’t be available until mid-December — but I can’t wait to do so.
This beer was personally recommended by 11th Hour’s McMahon and the Independent’s Kurzweg, among others. It won the Silver Medal in the Old Ale or Strong Ale category at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival, and the Silver Award in the Old Ale or Strong Ale at the 2016 World Beer Cup. Also: Roundabout’s head brewer Steve Sloan is widely regarded by other brewers as the best brewer in western Pennsylvania.
Per Roundabout’s web site, Heini’s Good Cheer is a “tawny colored bourbon barrel aged old ale with aromas and flavors of vanilla, oak, caramel, citrus, cocoa powder and warming alcohol. … Heini was a dear friend of Steve’s while Steve was living in Germany many years ago. We raise a glass of good cheer in honor of Heini and his generous hospitality.”
Heini’s checks in at 9.8 percent ABV. Check for availability at the brewery, at 4901 Butler St. in Lawrenceville.
More for your list
Truth is, every local craft brewer has a winter beer that deserves a spot on your Thanksgiving or Christmas meal table. Here’s a quick list of some (but certainly not all) of those offerings:
- CoStar Brewing Co.: The Highland Park brewery’s co-owner Dominic Cincotta recommends the Doppelbock (one of my favorite beers now for years — malty, strong but smooth, with finishing hints of chocolate) or the Oyster Stout.
- Draai Laag: St. Angus Belgian-style Christmas beer is strong and fruity, with orange and clove layers. Named after the Millvale brewery owner’s late dog, Angus, who Dennis Hock rescued on Christmas Eve 2004.
- East End Brewing Co.: SnowMelt Winter Ale is malty, ruby-red and never fails to impress.
If you didn’t find your favorite winter beer here, it’s not a slight. The list goes on and on. So walk to your local brewery and discover their newest experiments or polished go-tos.
Or go to the Independent, where Kurzweg informs that six taps from Nov. 21 to Dec. 31 will be dedicated to imported European strong ales, including beers from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Poland.
“It’s truly a spectacular list of international beer,” Kurzweg said. “It is Christmas come early for all boys and girls.”