Fasting, feasting and holidays go together around the world—and as Easter approaches, I’ve been considering the role that beer can play in all of it.
Yes, beer can play a role in fasting. The doppelbock style was brewed by Paulaner monks in Germany as a liquid bread for Lent in order to keep the hunger pangs away, and to give them energy and nutrients to continue doing the things monks do. Most importantly, it allowed them to get one over on God thanks to a technicality.
We’ll stick to beer that complements meals this month, though—and since we just mentioned German beer, what better to pair with that Easter ham than beers whose styles have basically been tailor-made to go with pork dishes? A doppelbock works great, but if you want to go with something not as strong, try a bock, a schwarzbier (black lager) or a Munich dunkel. They all have the added benefit of also pairing well with that pie for dessert, as the beers contain melanoidins, which are created in the browning of bread—and these beers are crisp enough to refresh the palate in between bites.
Easter brings along a bunch of other holidays—like Good Friday. In Catholic Mexico, this is an especially important holiday. Lent is still being observed, and this means going without red meat, putting fish, chicken, shellfish and vegetables front and center. Mexican seafood dishes like aguachiles and ceviche cry out for something like a Belgian witbier, which matches the citrus flavors while bringing a slightly peppery and tart dimension, along with a crisp finish to keep you going back for more. For things like chicken tacos, try a citrusy, herbal IPA—and for anything with nopales, try a saison, where the peppery, citrusy flavors catch a ride with the unique and wonderful flavor of the cactus. OK, let’s be honest: I’m not very familiar with Mexican Easter holiday traditions, but I know that Mexican cuisine makes for plentiful and interesting beer pairings.
Speaking of foreign traditions with which I’m not very familiar, Hindu New Year is also coming up. Known by many names throughout India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the holiday is celebrated with foods just as varied. Take a traditional dish from Kashmir called nadur palak—a spinach and lotus-stem curry. In a weird twist of colonial fate, English beer styles go very well with many dishes like this. English beers tend to be malt-balanced, which is very helpful when spice is involved. Additionally, English hops can give off earthy flavors that team well with the spinach in nadur palak. An English dark mild (yes, a “dark mild” is a real style) or even an English pale ale of some kind can be just what is needed here.
Daab chingri is a seafood dish featuring prawns with coconut in a mustard and turmeric curry. Seafood plus coconut equals a perfect occasion for a Belgian witbier. Imagine a light wheat ale that is also malt-balanced, made with the help of curaçao peel and coriander, with a crisp finish to get you ready for the next bite. Sign me up!
Now, let’s discuss a particularly challenging time that also arrives in April—not because of the food, but because of the religious tradition from which it comes. I’m speaking of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting from sunrise to sunset. Of course, Muslims are forbidden from drinking alcohol. However, those outside of the religion are free to enjoy a pairing of beer and delicious food from the Muslim world.
Let’s start with something simple and local: dates. There are a surprising number of options here. A Vienna lager (such as Phoenix, which used to be brewed under Chris Anderson’s watch at Coachella Valley Brewing Co., which included local dates) is a good start. Crisp with a lovely toasty malt backbone, Vienna lagers work very well with dates. If you want to go fully haram and stuff those dates with blue cheese, there’s no better pairing than a Belgian dubbel. It’s stronger than a Vienna lager, and that helps cut through the creamy, fatty goodness in the center of that date—a nice example of complement and contrast in one pairing.
How about a beloved bread pudding from Egypt called umm ali that is made with cream, nuts and cinnamon? An English strong ale would sit astride these flavors nicely. So would any kind of stout—English, Irish or American. If you want something that’s not so strong, a cream ale would do nicely instead.
Now, for some news both good and bad. The good news: I’m barely scratching the surface. The bad news: It’s nearly impossible to find some of the dishes I’ve mentioned here in the Coachella Valley … but can you blame me for dreaming?
My goal is to inspire you to try your own pairings with your own holiday foods. I wrote a short guide highlighting some basic pairing principles in this space a while back if you are interested, and there are really very few wrong answers when it comes down creating pairings. A bit of trial and error can be incredibly informative and exciting. Sometimes, the pairing may not quite work out … but when it does, the pleasure gained from it can be rapturous and repeatable for years to come.