New Year’s Eve, for those of us who drink alcohol, traditionally involves champagne. In fact, for many different types of celebratory occasions, champagne is the drink of choice.
Why? Perhaps it’s because of the theater—unwrapping the foil, undoing the cage and loudly popping the cork all contribute to the celebration. But what if you’re like me and are not that interested in drinking champagne? I don’t personally find it offensive, but I’d rather—and this might shock you—have a beer.
“Brett,” you might ask, “what if, like you, I prefer beer, but I still want the whole ceremonial aspect?” Well, friend, beer indeed has you covered. There are several options you can easily get—even on the day of the event, locally—and those options extend to different flavors as well. I’m not implying that all champagne tastes the same, but the diversity of styles of beer bottled using méthode champenoise (a fancy name for anything undergoing a secondary fermentation in the bottle) far outstrips that of sparkling wine. Get ready to enjoy the best of both worlds!
We begin (and likely end) with Belgian beer. Trappist/abbey ales are an ideal go-to when it comes to celebration. (For those wondering, only 14 breweries in the world can legally use the Trappist designation. Breweries that make similar beer styles are referred to as “abbey” ales.) Chimay is at the top of my list because of how widely available it is. Chances are good that you can find it at your local grocery store, and you should easily be able to find it at specialty liquor stores, including the big chain places. My recommendation is to go for Cinq Cents (a Belgian tripel) with the white label if you are looking for something that most resembles champagne in appearance. At 8 percent alcohol by volume, this beer (like many Belgian ales) is dry and crisp with a spicy, floral, hop bite and a fruity note from the yeast. Yeast strains play a prominent note in virtually every Belgian beer style, and every brewery has its own signature strain. If you want to spread your wings a little, try the Chimay Red or the Blue (the dubbel and dark strong ale, respectively). They are also dry, but are darker, with more fruit and caramel flavors. These are made for celebrations, as the monks do not drink these regularly, instead opting for lighter beers called patersbier (literally “father’s beer”) that are often only served at the abbeys themselves.
Beyond the Trappist beers, we have other options, and St. Bernardus ranks highly on my list. Until 1992, the brewery was licensed to brew beer for the famed Sint Sixtus abbey in Westvleteren. At that point, the abbey constructed its own brewing facility and retained the Trappist designation for itself. The agreement allowed St. Bernardus to keep the old recipes, however, so the beer is essentially the same as the historical Westvleteren beer. (The Sint Sixtus monks switched to yeast from another Trappist brewery, Westmalle, that makes equally delicious ales.) The same styles are available but are referred to by an old numbering system, with Abt. 8, 10, and 12 being the most common (dubbel, tripel and quadrupel, respectively, with “abt.” being short for “abbot”). St. Bernardus beers stick out to me, because their unique yeast strain includes a hint of licorice. I find it most in the wit, and I feel certain I could identify St. Bernardus’ beers by taste alone. (Anyone willing to test me on this is more than welcome to … at your expense.) I recommend exploring the Belgian part of the beer store and seeing what works for you.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention saisons—and a particular saison comes to mind, since we’re tarrying in Belgium: Saison Dupont. It is simply a classic. It has all the crisp dryness of a bottle-conditioned Belgian ale, with a prominent floral, grassy hop bite and a really lovely yeast note of white pepper and citrus. There are American saisons that can get pretty close, but the original is worth seeking out—and it is not very difficult to find. It’s also worth noting that saison is the ultimate beer to pair with food. There is very little with which it won’t go. There is even a 1.5-liter magnum bottle of the stronger version (named Avec Les Bon Voeux, French for “With Best Wishes”) at the Total Wine and More location in Palm Desert, if you want to go crazy.
One more Trappist ale deserves mention here, because it is the most unique: Orval. Orval abbey brews one beer; it is inspired by an English pale ale and is dry-hopped with German hops. Then it gets really interesting: After undergoing fermentation, the beer is bottled with Brettanomyces yeast (or “Brett,” often found in Belgian or Belgian-styles sour ales). It undergoes a secondary fermentation there and will change throughout its recommended five-year drinking window, being light and citrusy at first, and then slowly becoming earthier, gaining more of a barnyard (sometimes referred to in the beer world as “horse blanket”) note and becoming bone-dry due to the Brett eating up any available remaining sugar—sugar that most normal beer yeasts don’t get to. It’s one of my favorites, and it is highly carbonated, especially as it gets older. Pour with care!
As usual, I have left out many things I would love to have mentioned. Trader Joe’s has the best deal that I know of, with 750-milliliter bottles of its Vintage Ale made every year and sold for $6.99 a bottle. This is made by Unibroue in Quebec, a brewery that makes beers you’d swear came from Belgium if you were given one blindly.
DeuS Brut des Flandres from the Bosteels Brewery in Belgium is the most champagne-like in name, appearance, strength and mouthfeel. It is pricey but worth experiencing. In the last bottle I had, the most prominent flavor was of bubble gum, thanks to the yeast esters. The bottle is also very elegant, making it an ideal substitute for champagne.
While it is not advisable to celebrate together as normal—please don’t be a fool and create a further burden on our hospital workers—you can still celebrate with beer and re-create the same pomp and circumstance that champagne bottles can lend to an occasion.
Please be safe—and raise a toast with me in the hopes that 2021 will be far less shitty than 2020.
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at email@example.com.