Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Today's column: Pitcher This: Pop the cork on something new this year

If alcohol has an official, traditional, front-and-center place in any holiday celebration, it's New Year's Eve.

Sadly, most people give beer the boot with the old year, and ring in the new with champagne. But any committed beer lover should resolve to celebrate with something brewed, not vinified.

Anyone thinking here that beer just doesn't seem special enough to take center stage at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31 isn't thinking broadly enough about beer. There's a style for every occasion, and New Year's Eve is no exception.

A number of beer types work well for the traditional celebration, and are suitably rare to lend dignity to the moment. Perhaps most importantly, many are packaged in oversized, wine-style bottles. You can even enjoy the ceremonial, climactic pop of the cork at the stroke of midnight.

Belgium is the source of many of these styles, and the inspiration for many good interpretations by American brewers. Most are variations of strong dark and strong pale ales, often bottle-conditioned, that is with yeast still active after the beer is packaged, allowing it to continue fermenting, increasing its alcohol content and improving its flavor the longer it's stored. They're brewed in varying strengths, with the stronger versions labeled "dubbel" and "tripel."

Seven breweries in Belgium and the Netherlands have helped to make those styles famous. They're operated by Trappist monasteries that have brewed for centuries to help fund their religious work. Of these, beers from the Chimay Brewery are probably the most widely available here.

On this side of the Atlantic, the French Canadian company Unibroue makes an excellent line of Belgian-style ales, including a tripel they label La Fin Du Monde (French for "The end of the world") — a good choice for the end of the year. Pennsylvania's Victory Brewing makes an excellent tripel they call Golden Monkey, and New York's Brewery Ommegang has made a booming business recreating Belgian styles.

Most of the above beers and styles are light in character, with light, rich heads and a delicateness that make them a good substitute for champagne. There's even a style of beer brewed to mimic the methods that produce champagne, but good luck finding them.

Actually, all of these beers will be impossible to find on store shelves in Alabama, as most range from 7 to 12 percent in alcohol content — above Alabama's limit of 6 percent. Even the bottle size is restricted by law here, with nothing larger than 16 ounces allowed for sale. Meanwhile, Georgia's alcohol limit is higher —14 percent — and you'll have little trouble finding the 750 milliliter bottles there. I don't advocate breaking the law, but I will note that the Peach State's ban on fireworks doesn't seem to prevent citizens of that fine state driving here for their New Year's Eve supplies.

Of course, it may be too late to follow all the advice offered in this column for tonight, but look at it this way: You've now got a year to plan how to ring in 2010.