Hanukkah is not only an eight-day celebration of the Jews’ triumph over the Syrian army in 168 B.C., it’s a time to indulge in latkes—those maddeningly delicious fried potato pancakes slathered with sour cream and applesauce—brisket, and jelly donuts. Unfortunately, the holiday is also associated with something else. Something cloyingly sweet that comes in a square bottle. Today there are lots of kosher wine options that are dry and satisfying, but few are as ubiquitous as Manischewitz. But it turns out there might be a better beverage option for Hanukkah table: beer.
Jews have a long brewing history, from modernizing Germany’s beer industry in the late 1800s to bringing German beer styles to America. Jews likely developed a taste for beer when they were exiled from their home in Egypt and moved to Babylonia, where beer was more common than wine. According to writer Yvette Alt Miller, who holds a Ph.D. in Jewish studies from Oxford University, the Talmud mentions four different types of beer as well as the use of hops for both medicinal and preservation reasons. While Jews weren’t allowed to brew beer in Germany until the 1800s, they were highly successful hops growers. In 1868, when they were finally permitted to make beer, they revolutionized the industry by improving and modernizing production methods. When German Jews emigrated to America in the 19th century, they brought their brewing knowledge with them.
Today, thanks in part to the work of those early Jewish brewers, there is now a beer for every dish on the Hanukkah table—whether it’s paired with latkes or used in Bubbe’s brisket.
I would love doing a brisket in sour beer. No one ever thinks of that because it’s such a different sect of beers, but it’s got a kind of gastrique thing going on.”
For Will Horowitz, chef and owner of Duck’s Eatery in New York, beer makes a great braising liquid for brisket. “Some of the best we’ve ever made were smoked for the first half of the cooking process and then braised for the rest,” he says. “We’ve done briskets for Hanukkah and Passover braised in beer and cider, with apricot jam and all sorts of fun things.”
For a simple beer-braised brisket, Horowitz says he’d start by seasoning the meat with lots of cracked pepper and salt, and then sear it in a roasting pan with some olive oil to add color. “I’d deglaze the pan with the beer, then add a whole ton of garlic and rosemary and some jam—I’m a big fan of the jam thing—and fill the pan up about two-thirds of the way with stock,” he says. Then cover the pan and pop it into a 250 degree oven for a few hours.
Beer brisket recipes often call for mild-flavored brews, such as lager, but Horowitz prefers to go bold. “I would love doing a brisket in sour beer,” he says. “No one ever thinks of that because it’s such a different sect of beers, but it’s got a kind of gastrique [a vinegar-sugar reduction] thing going on.” Stouts and porters are other options. “Both of those would be amazing,” he says.
Pairing beer with brisket also calls for a full-bodied brew, says Jeremy Cowan, head of Shmaltz Brewing Company in New York. “You get a lot of sweetness with brisket and there’s usually a nice fatty decadence to it,” he says. “A golden strong ale really helps clean up the palate.”
The complexity of the profile that you can get from different malt ingredients can give you sweetness, bitterness, caramel notes, biscuit flavors, coffee, tartness. All of those flavors pair beautifully with a broad palette of food.”
Among other Jewish-themed brews, Shmaltz makes a holiday beer called Chanukah, Hanukkah: Pass the Beer, which changes in style every two years. Last year’s version was a golden strong ale that was crisp and bright, with some fruit notes—excellent, Cowan says, with brisket. This year’s beer, a dark chocolate strong ale with cocoa and vanilla notes, is a better match for latkes—especially the ones from Jimmy’s Diner in Brooklyn. “The latkes at Jimmy’s are big without being heavy, they’re crisp and they’re flavorful without being gut bombs,” he says. “They’re golden-brown and they serve them with both applesauce and sour cream, which is my jam. That’s the perfect pairing for this year’s Hanukkah beer.”
Horowitz also recommends sour beers with latkes, because they are able to cut through the oiliness of the fried pancakes, but still have complexity. “I wouldn’t be drinking something like a Corona with them,” he says.
According to Cowan, whose brewery hosts pairing dinners across the country, beer is a much better match for food than wine—during Hanukkah or any time of year. “With wine, you maybe get some complex flavors, but the texture is one note,” he says. “With beer, you’ve got multiple textures going on at the same time. The complexity of the profile that you can get from different malt ingredients can give you sweetness, bitterness, caramel notes, biscuit flavors, coffee, tartness. All of those flavors pair beautifully with a broad palette of food.”
Hops, he says, add another layer of complexity that allows beer to enhance everything from breads to meats to spicy foods. Even jelly donuts can find their match with a creamy peanut butter stout.
That’s not to say that Manischewitz is completely off the table, if that’s part of your Hanukkah tradition. “The beauty is, you can have it right along with the most precious barrel-aged sour,” Cowan says. “I am happy to have a little bit of everything to go along with the experience.”
Illustration by Remo Remoquillo