Pep Up Your Holiday Parties

The holidays start months in advance for me. I am the die-hard homebrewer in the family, and everyone knows it. And as the holidays approach, phone calls, faxes, and e-mails all ask the same thing: How’s the beer coming along? My anxiety shoots through the roof, but brewing isn’t the issue. I have my system down pat. My best all-grain holiday brews practically make themselves. They are time-tested and approved. No one ever walks away dissatisfied.

My blood pressure rises because I hate planning for holiday parties. Coming up with original party ideas is always the most onerous planning problem. For years I made my life a living hell, pacing the floor at night to come up with party themes like “Tom’s (Wild) Turkey Thanksgiving,” where Wild Turkey was the only drink, and “Weizennachten,” which played on the German word for Christmas (Weihnachten) and wheat beer (Weizen). Finally, I gave up. Party themes were above and beyond the call of duty. So I simplified. What follows is my recipe for success.

Party Peccadillo

A homebrew party guarantees that your holiday bash will be the most memorable of the season. Who could ask for more than a fridge full of exotic beers, right? Wrong. Even your closest friends can ask for lots more. I am reminded of a personal anecdote that fits this scenario.

The year was 1995 and my wife-to-be and I were getting married. It was a lovely day. Our guests were dazzled by the beautiful church and were awestruck by the reception location in the city’s beautiful botanical gardens. But something stunk in Camelot. Weeks earlier, our caterer had informed us that we were restricted to a specific beer selection. By his account, kegs were out of the question because guests always left a mess.

“Here is your selection,” he said, pointing to a short list. I felt my nose turn up in beer-snob fashion. “That’s it?” I queried, “We can’t get anything else?” Answer: “This is my approved list.”

Resigned to this ironic twist of fate, I picked a couple unsavory choices. I consoled myself with the thought that my older relatives wouldn’t care and my younger friends would still be feeling it from the night before. So my wife and I arrived at the reception. Groups were milling about. Things were jovial. But my eyes were drawn to something odd.

“What is Hugh holding?” I asked my blushing bride. “I think it’s a plastic cup,” she replied. I burst inside to witness the service staff pour a beer from a can into a plastic cup, hand it to a guest, pop open another can, and start again.

I nearly fainted.

The moral to that story is I should have known what the caterer had in store for us. The moral for this story, however, is that glassware matters. In most cases personal preference defines the concept of proper glassware. By my estimation, great beer should be served in a great glass. According to my aunt, however, plastic cups are better because they don’t break when you drop them.

I guess it is all a matter of perspective. Picking glassware starts with a simple assessment. Ready? Answer this question without pausing to think about it: Are the beer glasses important to you or your guests? Neither answer is right or wrong, but it does give you some perspective. And it makes your holiday planning easier. If the glassware only matters to you, do what you feel is right. Maybe, like me, you have shelves and hutches crammed full of fancy beer glasses that you “borrowed” while traveling through Europe. Or maybe you, like my aunt, shudder at the thought of broken glass. Either way, if your last concern is how your guests feel about their glassware, then follow your gut.

On the other hand you might let your guest determine your final decision. Will they scrutinize every last party detail? Or will all 75 roll in at once on their Harleys? Draw the obvious comparison; there really isn’t a wrong answer.

Serving Beer

How you pour your beer will depend largely on your choice of glassware. You should pour pilsner slowly into the center of a delicate pilsner glass, leaving an abundance of foam. Set the beer aside, allow the head to “firm up,” and repeat. In Germany the prevailing wisdom says it takes seven minutes to pour a perfect pilsner. The product should be a beautiful, straw-colored beer topped with a thick head of foam.

In comparison you might also employ the classic “tip-the-beer-glass-sharply-to-avoid-any-foam” technique. Strict traditionalists might frown on the procedure, but there are homebrewing moments when it comes in handy. For example most British-style beers feature low carbonation. Poured into an imperial pint, the beer should be next to overflowing. Most important, think “guillotine” and leave no head behind.

Here is one warning, however. As homebrewers we always attempt to pour our beers slowly, keeping the little bit of yeast in the bottle for a nice, clear brew. And we eagerly point it out when serving the beer. “Look at that,” you say, nudging your guest. “That is one clear beer.” “It sure is,” he says, wondering what it would mean if it were cloudy. I call this phenomenon the “knowledge faux pas.”

Essentially, homebrewers assume everyone else in the world understands beer and is excited about it. Though that should be true, it usually isn’t. Spiked with homebrew and holiday adrenaline, you prattle on about yeast cultures, wort chillers, and fermentation temperatures. As the night progresses, a glaze covers the eyes of those with whom you speak. “Ah,” you rejoice, “they are reaping the wonders of my beer.” “Just shut up,” they think.

Another danger lurks for the obstinate slow pourer. Imagine a party of, let’s say, 50 guests. You are standing behind a makeshift bar, delicately pouring the first beer of the evening. Two minutes later, voila! The perfect beer is served. That smug satisfaction you feel should be tempered by brutal reality. Multiply two minutes by 50 guests and you’ll be pouring beers nearly one and a half hours before your last guest gets his first beer. At that pace it wouldn’t be surprising to hear someone from the back of the line yell, “Do you just have some Bud?”

Thus, serving homebrew at a holiday party is a delicate balancing act between presentation and pace. You can find that happy medium by teaching guests how to pour their beers. Explain your motivation carefully, in simple terms. Get groups together for “quick clinics,” let them try their hand, and get on with the party. Make presentation fun but not a focal point of the evening.

Warming Trend

As a long-time bartender, I must attest that the perfect beer temperature is an elusive science. For every five people who love your ice-cold brew, there are five who will think it is too cold. And others will claim the beer is warm. It gets even worse with kegs. The beer might creep above 40° F and it suddenly pours all foam. Once that happens, you can’t get the temperature down quick enough.

How do you determine the perfect serving temperature? Let the season be your guide. Summertime is perfect for smooth, ice-cold beers. But fall and winter holidays lend themselves to the wonderful world of porters, stouts, dunkels, altbiers, and festive specialty beers. These are beers that you could serve cold. But cold temperatures bury the distinct flavors of dark grains. Try this comparison: Chill a stout overnight in the fridge and leave another on the counter. The next morning, open the cold stout first. Pour it slowly, building a nice head. Now take a sip. What do you taste? A stout, right? But notice how the flavors are dampered and dull. The chilly temperature has effectively frozen your
tongue. Your tastebuds are numb. Half the flavor of the beer is missing. Grab some tap water and take some gulps. Now pop open the room temperature stout. Again, pour it patiently and take a drink. Taste the difference?

Beer served at the proper temperature can be a liberating experience. Nothing compares to that moment of recognition when you say, “That is the best beer I ever drank,” and you realize it was not freezing cold. The holidays are a great time to share that moment with family and friends, though it might not hurt to keep some backups in the fridge just in case.

Kitchen Complements

Matching beer with food is the ultimate goal of a beer-themed party. If beer is the centerpiece of your event, choose menu selections that match your beers.

Don’t panic; this isn’t rocket science. Close your eyes and think carefully about your favorite beers. How do they taste? How does your palate react? Is there a perfect food that would complement the beer?

Consider these suggestions. With a traditional turkey dinner, a pale ale is an excellent companion beer. The beer’s color matches the turkey centerpiece. And the crisp, hoppy flavor complements the turkey’s delicate meat, not unlike a fruity Chardonnay would.

If your main selection is ham glazed with maple or honey, a dark honey porter is the perfect complement. Serving it at room temperature accentuates the beer’s sweet, malty character. It is the perfect heart-warming combination of food and brew.

Exercise your creativity while pairing desserts and beers. A lambic-style brew often works well. Try a beer with a strong fruity flavor; raspberry and peach are good choices. Presented with a decorative holiday fruit tart, not only will your lambics be showcased in a beautiful denouement to your dinner, your guests will be blown away by the interesting combination of sweet, smooth beer and a rich, citrus dessert.

No matter what you do, have fun. Be creative. If you have a friend whose hobby is cooking, throw a party together. With good food, good brew, and good cheer, your friends and you will enjoy a memorable holiday season.

Issue: December 1998