Thinking of breaking out a bottle of champagne for your New Year’s Eve celebrations? Before you do, pause to consider: who do you think you are, putting on such airs? Do you know what makes a good champagne? Do you have the slightest inkling how to select a good one, or would you make that purchasing decision based solely on price, no doubt falling prey to some unscrupulous grape farmer with more marketing acumen than you have wine knowledge?
Just think of that dreadful, embarrassing interaction at the wine counter as you mumble your way through the debasing ritual of asking the bored clerk for a recommendation, you poor, benighted supplicant.
So perhaps I’m projecting a bit. I dislike buying wine, as I know so little about it. But one of the only times I've ever subjected myself to it is around this time of year: the holidays, and New Year’s Eve in particular. The tradition of a celebratory champagne toast dates back centuries, when champagne was truly a luxury item accessible only to the extremely wealthy few, and carbonated beverages were still a rarity.
Today, champagne is available at virtually every price point, from a few dollars to many thousands per bottle, and almost a quarter of all champagne sales take place during the month of December. Champagne and New Year’s are synonymous in the west.
Just not in our house.
The beer is beautiful to both behold and taste.”
We are a Beer Household, and we prefer to celebrate accordingly. If you’re similarly inclined, and would like to break out of the grocery store champagne tradition, consider making this a Beer Year. You can even preserve most of the signature ritual of the champagne toast: beautiful glasses, a popped cork, high effervescence. We can even closely match some of the flavors and aromas you might expect from a bottle of bubbly, and treat your wine-y friends and neighbors to a new experience in fermented indulgence.
All of the beers below are bottle conditioned, meaning they have been packaged unpasteurized along with a certain amount of yeast, allowing for what we call refermentation. As the yeast slowly eat through some of the residual sugars in the beer, they create carbon dioxide, creating the fine bubbles and high effervescence for which these beers are known. This process is actually somewhat equivalent to the famous Methode Champenoise by which traditional champagne is carbonated in the bottle, although most beers don’t rely solely on bottle conditioning for the entirety of their carbonation.
Regardless, bottle conditioned beers are “living,” in that the yeast is still alive, changing the beer, and increasing the carbonation over time (this is why some aged beers will gush when opened). If you prefer a clear, sediment-free glass of beer (and who doesn’t), be sure to pour with care, and leave the last inch or so of liquid at the bottom of the bottle, along with the small yeast cake that may have formed there.
These beers love proper glassware, as well, so break out your tulips, your TEKUs, and your goblets. Cheers!
Made since 2002, DeuS bills itself as “Brut des Flanders,” an appellation purely of the family-owned Bosteels brewery’s creation. A Belgian golden strong ale, DeuS clocks in at 11.5% alcohol by volume, so it’s right in the champagne range for strength.
DeuS is perhaps as close to champagne as one can get while sticking with beer, as it is actually made according to the méthode champenoise. After its initial fermentation with traditional ale yeast (this particular culture is said to impart a certain ginger character), DeuS is slowly and painstakingly refermented in the bottle, conditioning for at least a year to achieve its high, fine carbonation.
The beer is beautiful to both behold and taste: in its signature DeuS flute glass, one might well mistake the bubbly, straw-colored liquid for champagne, but on first sip, it is recognizably a beer. A delicate florality and fruity sweetness give way to an exquisite dry finish. DeuS also has the distinction of being priced right alongside quality wines: expect a single bottle to go for anywhere from $30 to $40 in most of the US.
Colloquially (and perhaps apocryphally?), Berliner Weisse is sometimes referred to as “Champagne of the North."”
One of the finest beers in the world is also one of the best champagne replacements. A wise man once listed his Top 5 Beers for Thanksgiving as Saison Dupont – five times.
Peerless among food beers, Saison Dupont also makes for a perfect celebratory bott poppin’. I’m often shocked at how many people in the beer world I meet who have never experienced this world classic; it’s a testament to how novelty-obsessed and inward looking American craft beer has become that self-styled saison aficionados may have never tasted arguably the best saison on earth.
But I digress. Saison Dupont should be welcome on any holiday table, and certainly at any celebration. Brewed in Hainaut since 1920, this is a true farmhouse ale, in that it is still brewed on a working farm. At 6.5% ABV, it’s certainly lighter on alcohol than most champagnes, which is good, because it means you can drink more of it. Pils malt lends this beer a soft sweetness, and East Kent and Styrian Goldings hops in combination with the signature yeast make for a delicate floral nose. Available in both 11.2oz crown cap 4 packs and 750ml cork-and-cage bottles, go with the large format for added champagne-y…ness.
Boulevard Saison Brett
While technically another saison, Boulevard Saison Brett is wildly different from the classic Saison Dupont, but still retains many of the qualities (like high effervescence, lively mouthfeel and dry finish) that make saisons great champagne alternatives.
Saison Brett is actually based on Boulevard’s prized Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale, so if you can’t lay your hands on this mixed fermentation version, the Tank will make a fine alternative.
As the name would imply, Saison Brett is fermented in part with a strain of “wild” Brettanomyces yeast, which lends this brilliant dry hopped ale additional fruity and earthy qualities that will continue to develop in the bottle. This beer is frankly just exquisite: wonderfully hoppy, complexly funky, well-structured, balanced, deep. And it pairs well with all manner of food, company, and settings. Saison Brett comes packaged in a handsome 750ml cork-and-cage bottle, typically for about ~$13, depending on where you are.
Professor Fritz Breim 1809 Berliner Weisse
One of my very favorite and readily-available examples of the style, 1809 Berliner Weisse hearkens back to a time before canned kettle sours jammed every inch of available shelf space; as the B. United International description of the beer notes, it’s bottle-conditioned, unfiltered and unpasteurized.
At 5.0% ABV it’s actually higher in alcohol than many historical versions, but lower than the other three beers on this list: this is meant to be a sessionable sour beer, with a sharp lactic tartness and fine, high carbonation (that B. United incidentally refers to as “champagne-like”).
Colloquially (and perhaps apocryphally?), Berliner Weisse is sometimes referred to as “Champagne of the North,” and the “very pale, slightly hazy, and effervescent [beer] with a light tang,” as Prof. Briem writes of it in The Oxford Companion to Beer, was supposedly a favorite among Napoleon’s troops during his wars of European conquest.
So make like an imperial warmonger and treat yourself to this fine, inexpensive bottled ale, which has flavors of lemon and bread dough. It can be found in discerning bottle shops for typically less than $5 per 500ml bottle.