I don’t think one is ever too old for the childlike merriment of dressing up and eating candy on Halloween. The only caveat I would make would perhaps be that some folks are too old for being too young for Halloween. The general immaturity of using the holiday as nothing more than an opportunity for girls to get hammered and flaunt their assets in skimpy outfits while guys become the walking embodiment of that shirtless selfie mirror profile pic on MySpace and prey upon said girls is nothing short of astounding. Maybe I’m just jaded. There is hope, however, that the gratuitously sexy Halloween costumes may have jumped the shark. But if you’re a parent looking for your wayward 20-something children, you can find them at a bar on Washington taking Jäger bombs just before a “costume contest” with its motivations so thinly veiled it might as well be called “Best Tits”.
But for those mature adults looking a more sophisticated outlet, All Hallows’ Eve directly precedes – you guessed it – All Saints Day, or, in Mexican culture, Día de los Muertos. This festival honors the memories of loved ones who have gone before and is characterized by sweets and imagery featuring skeletons and skulls, or calaveras, perhaps most familiar in the artwork of José Guadalupe Posada. In that spirit, I started thinking of the most appropriate beers that might be used to toast and celebrate one’s dearly departed. I would say “pour one out” – but that would just be wasteful. I’ve also thought about a beer calendar of sorts, especially since seasonals seem to be released earlier and earlier every year. After the Hefeweizens and Goses of summer should then come the Oktoberfests, starting in September, then the pumpkin beers in October, tied as they are to the autumnal cornucopias and jack-o-lanterns of Halloween, and then… why not All Saints’ Beers? To that end, here is my list of the best beers for the Day of the Dead.
Even the greenest of craft beer initiates have probably tried the ubiquitous Dead Guy Ale from the Rogue Brewery. Interestingly enough, the behatted skeleton sitting akimbo atop a beer barrel was originally designed as a tap handle specifically to celebrate All Saints Day. The logo became so popular that Rogue decided to retroactively apply it to one of its ales permanently – a Maibock, for some reason. This style is generally rolled out as a spring seasonal, traditionally in May, but Rogue’s effort is nevertheless a highly drinkable brew all the year through, November 1 or otherwise. The amber-colored Dead Guy won’t knock your socks off, but it’s a toasty, malty, consistently solid oat soda that’s nigh on sessionable if you’re raising your glass to a considerable number of souls. Not only is it sold in 22 oz. bombers but also in full on growlers which, once depleted, can be refilled at places like the Petrol Station or Hay Merchant with whatever your relatives tell you to drink from beyond the grave.
4. Ska – Nefarious Ten Pin
Much of the line-up from Ska Brewing is stylized with skeletons, like the bitter IPA Modus Hoperandi or the Pinstripe red ale. But it’s the reincarnated version of their Ten Pin Porter, Nefarious, that gets my vote for an All Saints’ beer. Conveniently enough, it’s just gotten colder in Houston, and there’s nothing better for those hibernal nights than a rich imperial porter. This one is ratcheted up with lots of coffee and chocolate notes though also some figgy fruit comes through the complex malts. It also makes a great compliment to those winter chilis and stews as Petrol Station proved last year with their Nefarious Oxtail Soup, all while warming your bones with its 8% ABV. The regal skeleton on the label for these 22 oz. bombers is imposing indeed.
3. Boulevard – Harvest Dance
Part of Boulevard Brewing’s special Smokestack Series, this Wheat Wine is a great option for the Day of the Dead. With the leaves and acorns falling on Houston lawns and sidewalks, the pumpkins and Indian corn and myriad seasonal trappings lining store shelves, this autumnal ale does a Harvest Dance on your palate, just as the bale of hay gambols with a skeletal grim reaper wielding the scythe that felled it on the label. Most people are probably familiar with the more common Barleywine, essentially a wine-strength ale with other vinous characteristics, but its cousin, as the name implies, utilizes wheat malt that gives it some Hefeweizen-style lemon notes and golden color, along with some mild American hoppiness. The higher ABV at about 9% is warm without being as heavy as stouts with similar alcohol content.
2. Left Hand – Wake Up Dead
Left Hand Brewing Co. gets well-deserved praise for many of their beers, particularly their Milk Stout, which is nearly ubiquitous in finer beer establishments with a nitro tap. Wake Up Dead, part of Left Hand’s Ode to Thrash Metal, is an Imperial Stout that aims to reanimate your palate’s dead corpse, and with its rich chocolate and 10.2% ABV, it’s quite successful. The label for these bombers feature a vaporous stylized skull on a red background swarming with the souls of the departed, perfect for Día de los Muertos. It even got a nod for some of the best artwork in the country from our own Houston Press. The robust body carries some additional coffee notes and a lower hop content than other American versions of the style. Coupled with a barrel-aging treatment, it’s a silky smooth brew perfect for colder evenings.
1. Saint Arnold – Santo
How could Santo, a Black Kölsch from the Saint Arnold Brewery, not take the top spot? The label art was designed specifically for the Day of the Dead by local Houston artist Carlos Hernandez, who is perhaps best known for his Day of the Dead Rockstars series. With the design in hand, Brock Wagner and Saint Arnold did not have a specific beer for which to use the label, but for the first time ever, they actually worked backwards to brew a beer that would fit the label. Unlike Rogue’s Dead Guy, however, they actually applied it to a beer that’s perfect for the season. Kölsch beers are fermented at warm temperatures like an ale, but then cold conditioned like a lager, and is normally a lighter bodied, straw-colored brew like the other Kölsch offerings from Saint Arnold, Lawnmower and Weedwacker. But I actually prefer the darker malts of Santo to those other beers, and it has always been hoped that Santo would soon replace the standard Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant beers like Negra Modelo. It pairs wonderfully with the spices of that cuisine, one that is also often rich and heavy, so Santo allows you to have a dark beer without the heaviness of a stout. This beer was tailor-made for Día de los Muertos, and seemingly for El Gran Malo, the infused-tequila gastrocantina on Ella with its Day of the Dead aesthetic. In fact, any of these beers would be a fitting choice during their Day of the Dead festivities this Saturday, but particularly Houston’s own Santo.
Whatever your chosen spirit this week, be sure to toast the departed warmly and fondly, and hey, why not have a sugar skull or two. Mankind always harbors a general fear of death, but death is just another part of life, and no holiday does more to remind us of that fact than Día de los Muertos.