The holidays are great, but beer makes everything better, including December’s most iconic condiment
When it comes to familial gatherings during the holidays, many see the helix strains of DNA as the ties that bind…but not me. I say our winter comings, goings, catch-ups and throw-downs are bound by two mighty forces—alcohol and gravy. The former makes everything better—or at least far more tolerable—including the latter. With Thanksgiving in our near-horizon rear-view and the yuletide fast approaching, this seems the perfect time to share a base recipe for beer-infused gravy as well as several fun variations and preparations for it.
Many believe you need to have the drippings from a large roast beast or buxom fowl to construct authentically delicious gravy. I am not arguing the glories of starting with the rendered fat and juices of a slow-cooked behemoth, but gravy on the fly can be made using just about any form of fat desired. It all depends on your ultimate saucing goal.
If you’re looking for a really meaty or smoky gravy, but aren’t starting with a meaty, smoky hunk of protein, the best way to go is sausage. But know your links (or patties). Breakfast sausage is a nice midpoint. It generally exhibits big pork flavor, plenty of salt and a touch of black-pepper spice, making it ideal for the “sawmill gravy” used to smother biscuits across the South. That dish sees crumbled breakfast sausage rendered in a cast-iron skillet, followed by a sprinkle of flour (typically Wondra, a super-fine variety easily found in supermarkets) and the addition of whole milk and more pepper. Other forms of sausage can be used in this preparation, most notably loose, Mexican-style beer or pork chorizo, which adds plenty of garlic and paprika flavor to the finished product. But given its high fat content, you may need to actually remove some of the abundant (and abundantly tasty) orange oil slick that results during rendering.
Getting back on the holiday-accoutrement track, Italian sausage rendered in olive oil provides nice flavors for turkey gravy, as do the giblets (the heart, kidneys, liver and neck packaged inside a frozen turkey’s cavity), though the latter lends flavor sans fat. With turkey and beef gravy, it’s not as important to extract flavors from fat so long as you use stock. One can make their own stock by simmering bones or the aforementioned giblets along with aromatic vegetables (generally, carrots, onions and celery), but store-bought versions have come a long way over the years. When utilizing them, it’s recommended to go with low-sodium or unsalted varieties so you can control the amount of seasoning in your gravy.
When it comes to incorporating beer, it’s important to select the right type for the dish that you are adding the gravy to. For beefy gravies, reach for ales with rich, roasted-malt character—brown ales, porters, stouts, Belgian dubbels and quadrupels. Even coffee beers can work, especially when making “red-eye gravy”, which typically incorporates black coffee and is served over country ham. For lighter gravies served over poultry, it’s best to stay on the lower-bodied, gold-to-blonde side of the SRM scale, opting for beers with floral, herbal or vegetal character—helles, Kölsch, Belgian blonde ales, witbiers, table beers or saisons. The nuances of Belgian ales, in particular, create a flavor bridge for herbs like sage, thyme, parsley and rosemary. In the case of any gravy, it’s highly recommended that hoppy beers be avoided altogether.
Some of my favorite beer-gravy dishes during the holidays include herbed saison gravy with turkey and brown ale beef gravy with steak of any kind. Either work well over mashed potatoes, especially if they have goat cheese whipped into them along with whatever herbs are used in the gravy. And a dish that holds a special place in my heart 365 days a year is something I affectionately call Debu-Tots. It gets its name from the main ingredient—The Debutante, a Belgian-style amber ale made at my nine-to-five, Societe Brewing. That, bacon fat and beef stock form the basis for a gravy that is ladled over tater tots that are then adorned with cheese curds (if you can get them…queso Oaxaca or queso fresco if you can’t). It’s a modern, beery take on poutine that benefits greatly from the depth of malty, spicy flavor in the base beer. I’ve included the recipe so that you can enjoy it now, into the New Year and beyond!
with Bacon, Cheese Curds & Belgian Amber Beer Gravy
Yield: 4 servings
Add the bacon to a cast-iron skillet or large sauté pan over medium-high heat and cook until it is crispy and its fat has fully rendered. Remove the bacon from the pan and, if necessary, remove some of the fat so that there is ¼ cup remaining in the skillet. Whisk in the flour until it is fully incorporated with the fat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add the stock, beer and Worcestershire sauce. Bring the mixture to a boil, add the rosemary and cook until a gravy consistency is reached 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Strain the mixture into a gravy boat and set aside.
To serve, divide the tater tots into serving bowls. Place the cheese over the tater tots and ladle with warm gravy. Garnish with the reserved bacon and scallions. Serve immediately.
From the Beer Writer: Many craft fans are familiar with Rogue Ales’ Voodoo Doughnut beers, a series of ales paying homage to the Portland, Oregon-based pair of donut shops through ales sharing flavor profiles of their outlandish baked goods. That collection has grown to include lemon chiffon cruller and chocolate-raspberry-pretzel editions, but it all started with a polarizing bacon-maple ale. Many respect the experiment—the beer smells porkily smoky and it certainly presents big maple flavors—but dislike its cloying sweetness. Count me among that group. It just tastes artificial and crudely constructed. It’s enough to make one leery of any beer striving to come across as the liquid incarnation of a baked good, but I was recently rewarded for giving another donut beer a go while dining at The Cork and Craft (16990 Via Tazon, Rancho Bernardo). Their list of house-brewed beers included Abnormal Full Pint Breakfast Porter, an imperial oatmeal porter brewed with Brazilian coffee and maple syrup. The addition of java is what rounds this beer out, resulting in a familiar coffee shop olfactory and taste experience. Nobody’s aching for their beer to taste like a donut, but roasty, bitter coffee contrasted by a bit of maple bar sweetness…now that’s something that’s much more complete and extremely enjoyable.
From the Brewer: “Brewing beer is fun. Brewing new beers is even more fun. Brewing new beers in collaboration with your friends is an absolute blast. The idea for the Breakfast Porter came about at one of the best beer fests in the country, the Firestone Walker Invitational. My buddy, Danny, who runs The Full Pint approached Mike Arquines, the Head Roaster of Mostra Coffee, and I about making a collaborative beer for their anniversary party in LA. I love making coffee beers and I love a challenge, so right there the creative juices were flowing…hard. We knew we wanted to make something big and bold, something to tantalize taste buds. I threw out the idea of using maple in the beer and BOOM, the idea for a beer that simulated a maple bar donut dipped in coffee was born. Breakfast Porter is an imperial oatmeal porter that uses a lot of grade “B” maple syrup at the end of an extended boil and Mostra Brazil Oberon coarse-ground coffee after primary fermentation. This is breakfast (or dessert) in a glass!”—Derek Gallanosa, Head Brewer, Abnormal Brewing Co.