Inside the Strange and Surprisingly Tasty World of Eggnog Beer
At breweries around the country, an unexpectedly delicious combination is growing in popularity
Certain subjects can get polarizing around the holidays, not least of which is eggnog. For some, it’s an essential part of the season; for others, it’s a hazard to be avoided at all costs. It should come as little surprise, then, that a similar divide surrounds eggnog beer. While researching this article, I photographed one of the beers I was sampling for research and posted it to Instagram with a brief caption.
The responses I received ranged from curious to horrified, with an emphasis on the latter. Did you like it? one friend asked. I reported back that, indeed, I had. But even as I did so, some questions circled around within my mind. Why was an eggnog beer something I felt curious to try? How would that taste, even? Or, to paraphrase the name of one of the beers I tried, did I even like eggnog?
And answering all of those questions required a deeper look into the world of eggnog beers.
You’ll note that I’m saying “eggnog beer” and not, say, “eggnog IPA.” One of the first things that became apparent upon looking into the subject is there is not one universal way to translate the peculiar taste of eggnog into beer form. I’d begun exploring this corner of the craft brewing world when two breweries whose work I tend to enjoy — New Jersey’s Kane Brewing and Carton Brewing — each began selling cans of their own take on eggnog beer.
Comparing them head-to-head doesn’t necessarily seem fair, though. Kane’s beer is an IPA, while Carton’s is a cream ale. And digging even further into the subject involved learning about some other breweries experimenting with eggnog — including those that incorporated it into stouts and porters.
While eggnog flavors can be incorporated into a wide array of styles of beer, that process can come with some technical challenges. Jacob Holz, R&D Brewer at Maine’s Shipyard Brewing — which has brewed a white eggnog porter — told InsideHook that “the addition of lactose is a little difficult.” As he explained, “it uses quite a bit and you have to add it at a certain point, but not all at once. Too much at once will clog the system and cause burning of the liquid; too late and it may not all dissolve and you’ll have clumping.”
Technical challenges aren’t the only issues afoot when making an eggnog beer. Another substantial hurdle to cross isn’t hard to predict: the wariness many drinkers have regarding anything with the word “eggnog” in the name. Holz mentioned “the education and conversation that comes with a beer like this” as the biggest challenge facing Shipyard when it comes to their eggnog beer.
But when there’s an enthusiastic audience for eggnog beer, the results can be both rewarding and enduring. Pennsylvania’s Spring House Brewing Company has made multiple eggnog stouts over the years. As Head Brewer Eddie Lopez Jr. explained, the success of an eggnog stout — The Martians Kidnap Santa — led to the creation of a bourbon barrel-aged version called Happy Heifer.
“Lots of consideration has to go into the actual liquid that goes into the barrels,” Lopez explained. “Blending the different barrel flavors at the end of aging also has to be a thought-out process.” For Spring House, that process has worked out well. “We did not make very much of Happy Heifer, but it has sold out very quickly,” Lopez said.
That, in turn, points to something else about eggnog beer: it tends to sell out very quickly. When it came time to jot down my own impressions of eggnog beer, I could only find two varieties available. I did trek out to the middle of Long Island in search of a four-pack of Evil Twin’s Eggnog IPA, but the listing information suggesting it was in stock at the beer shop in question proved to be incorrect.
First up was Kane’s Do I Even Like Eggnog? eggnog IPA. This falls onto the milkshake IPA side of the spectrum — not too surprising, when you think about it — and manages to taste far creamier than most beers, but still significantly less creamy than eggnog itself. There was an easygoing aspect to drinking it that belied its 7.4% ABV, and there were some citrus notes in there along with a touch of spice.
If Kane’s beer evoked the density of the eggnog more, Carton’s Will It Nog? cream ale got at the nuances of flavor that a good eggnog can have. This, too, packed a punch (10% ABV) that you would not necessarily know from drinking it. Otherwise, it offered exactly what was promised: the can boasted notes of vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon, and all three were indeed present.
The eminent drinkability of both beers reminded me of something Shipyard’s Holz had said, when he spoke about one of the paradoxes when it comes to eggnog beer. “[T]he ones who love eggnog, myself included, know it’s not something you can drink a lot of. But if a beer was created to mimic its taste, you could enjoy the flavor more often than you would actual eggnog.”
That was what made for the biggest surprise. While I’m partial to a small glass of eggnog on Christmas Eve, there’s only so much of it you can drink without feeling the distinctive sense of nausea that attends dairy overload. When it comes to these beers, though, a pint feels like the ideal size — or the perfect beginning.
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