I’m not sure where, exactly, in the evolution of holidays that some were assigned a particular drink to accompany them. It seems like common knowledge that on St. Patrick’s Day you drink beer or whiskey, on New Year’s Eve you pop champagne, and for dinner on Valentine’s day, you share a special bottle of wine (and a box of chocolates) with your significant other. But I think it’s time that we throw those “rules” out the window, especially when it comes to Valentine’s Day.
Because it was often seen as a working-class beverage, beer is sometimes assumed to be less refined or complex than wine. This may have been true when the only beer available was watery, mass-market lagers, but with the diversification of beer since the 1980s, it has come a very long way. There are beers out there that can be just as romantic, sexy or elegant as a bottle of wine.
Consider barrel-aged beers, for example. These beers usually begin as a higher-alcohol beer, such as a stout or barleywine, and then are introduced to more flavors as they are steeped in barrels previously used by other spirits. The combinations of wood and vanilla notes from oak, as well as the characteristics of the whiskey, rum or other spirits that infuse into the beer, add layers of aroma and flavor. In Maine, many brewers have added barrel-aging programs to their lineup, and the results have been unique and layered. Allagash Brewing Co., Barreled Souls Brewing, Oxbow Brewing and Liquid Riot Fermentation & Distillation regularly barrel age beer, and their creations are worth seeking out, but your best opportunity to try and purchase them is to get the beer directly from the brewery or tasting room.
Beer also has the advantage when paired with food – something that is important for a successful date night. Belgian-style beers, in particular, tend to offer up a richness and depth of flavor that some of the latest IPAs may lack – and the notes of plum, dark fruit, cherries or figs can provide a romantic backdrop for a romantic dinner. The straightforward, yet complex tastes of a saison or farmhouse ale pairs wonderfully with fatty meats, providing a crisp contrast to their richness.
And then there’s dessert. Chocolate and wine, while both synonymous with a romantic date, really don’t pair that well when it comes to taste. The flavors in wine don’t provide as wide of a range of sweet, tart or fruity notes as beer can produce. The major thing that beer has but wine (usually) does not, however, is carbonation. The richness from the chocolates and cocoa butter melts in the mouth and coast the tongue. The following zing of carbonation from your beer of choice can then reinvigorate your palate, both enhancing the flavor of the chocolate and clearing the way for the next delicious bite. Because of this palate-clearing effect, it also means that you can try a variety of different chocolates and beers without having the flavors blend together too much.
The beer and chocolate pairings don’t have to be all dark beers. Fruited and wild beers can contribute contrasting notes of tartness or sweetness, and higher alcohol beers will cut through the fat of the chocolate. For Christmas, I received a gift set of Belgian chocolates that were filled with Belgian beer – something that was ordered from a catalog of gifts and gift baskets. I didn’t have particularly high expectations, but I was blown away. The little box contained a variety of lambics and sweeter beers encased in mini chocolate bottles. The richness of the chocolate itself was often made to sing when the burst of tart cherry lambic came through.
Novare Res Bier Cafe (in conjunction with La Creme Chocolate) hosts an event annually on Valentine’s Day, when special beers on tap are matched with custom chocolate truffles. When you order the beer, you can choose to receive the chocolate to taste alongside it. This year’s lineup includes 10 different beers paired with the truffles. They include Maine beers, such as the Hillrock Bourbon Barrel Aged Blonde on Blonde from Barreled Souls Brewing, a blonde barleywine aged in bourbon barrels for over nine months, and Oxbow Brewing’s Saison Rosé, a saison with some wild yeast that includes pinot noir grapes, cherries, raspberries and strawberries. I’m particularly excited to try the Bissell Brothers Sigil 3, which is a blend that contains rye and bourbon barrel-aged imperial oatmeal stout and smoked Russian imperial stout.
So if you and your partner are willing to be a little curious and adventurous, give beer a chance to shine this Valentine’s Day. Besides, the holiday really should be about love, not what the marketers tell you. So feel free to find an interesting beer (and maybe a chocolate, too) and celebrate.