The Kentucky Derby is America’s greatest sports-party event. The Super Bowl gets all the attention, because it happens in early February when there are few other reasons to live, and because it’s preceded by an interminable buildup that resembles a presidential election campaign in its tedium and duration. Sometimes I conflate the two events and catch myself thinking, “Man, it feels like Clinton’s been running for President since halftime of the Obama-Romney game” and pondering the merits of single-payer buffalo wings.
The Kentucky Derby, on the other hand, is over before you know it. It takes place on the first Saturday in May, which puts it in direct competition with Cinco de Mayo for the food-and-drink internet’s attention; you don’t even remember it’s happening until the mint julep recipes start popping up everywhere a few days beforehand, and the race itself lasts just over two minutes. That means you can devote your full attention to eating and drinking for 99 percent of your party without missing any of the main event.
Now, please allow me to offer some Kentucky Derby party catering advice. The solid food’s simple: fancy ham and deviled eggs. Or a couple bags of pretzels and a jug of mixed nuts. Easy enough either way. As for the liquid, sure, go ahead, make mint juleps, but have beer on hand, too. Some otherwise decent people just don’t like bourbon. I’m not saying you should let them into your home—that’s for you to decide—but many of the righteous julep-suckers among us also enjoy a variety of beers to round out the afternoon.
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The following recommendations are united in being at least tangentially Kentucky Derby related. But first, I need to confess that I haven’t had the chance to try a couple of really promising contenders. Both Boulevard and Flying Dog make explicitly Derby-themed beers, Tripel Julep and Mint Julep Ale, respectively. Neither one is available in my area. And the other obvious choice is Kentucky Bourbon Ale, but I don’t happen to enjoy the stuff. So this list is missing a couple of obvious beers, but it makes up for it by including a few that have very little reason to be here other than the only reason that really matters: They’re really good!
They call this 6-percent ABV Coloradan an American ESB, which means a malt base similar to a traditional English extra special bitter but gussied up with new-school American hops Chinook and Amarillo for a fruitier, tropical edge.
This Belgian-style tripel from Pennsylvania’s saving gustatory grace clocks in at 8-percent ABV, which is on the gentle side for the category, but it packs as much fruit and spice punch as the best of its peers.
There’s no better way to pay homage to the most popular model of horse house than with this 6.7-percent ABV orange peel and ginger-spiced saison from Southern California.
Here’s a unique one from Massachusetts, a 6.7-percent ABV Belgian-style pale ale brewed with vanilla beans to create a sweet, smooth counterpoint to the spicy Trappist yeast used in fermentation.
Gambling on horse racing the one day a year you actually watch it is certainly a skill-based proposition and I would never imply your handicapping odds would improve with a bit of luck. However, for entirely unrelated reasons I would like to suggest you try this “mondo large red ale” from Petaluma, California. It’s a heavily hopped 8.8-percent ABV imperial amber with sweet grapefruit and pine flavors, along with a hint of red berries. Lucky 13 brings to mind my beloved Troegs Nugget Nectar, which is about the highest compliment I can pay a red ale.
Remember how we established that you should drink a spiced saison on account of horses living in barns? Well then it logically follows that you should wash it down with an alcoholic ginger beer because barns are on farms, which are oftentimes overseen by farmers. I’m a sucker for most boozy ginger beers—Crabbie’s, New City, and Forbidden Root all make good ones—but the official ginger beer of the 2016 VinePair Kentucky Derby Beer Guide is this lemon-spiked 4.5-percenter from Rhode Island (they sent me a couple cans and a t-shirt last week, plus it tastes wicked good).
There’s a horseshoe on the label, and Billy Dee Williams has recently returned as celebrity pitchman. If that’s not good enough for your Kentucky Derby party, then I’m not sure you even deserve a 6.1-percent ABV malt liquor currently produced by Pabst in Los Angeles.
And here’s how we’re going to fill our bourbon requirement, with a 13.1-percent ABV barrel-aged imperial stout from central California. This tastes like all the other bourboned-up monster stouts, except better in every way. It’s got the full complement of chocolate, coffee, toffee, leather, tobacco, vanilla, cinnamon, and whatever else your tongue’s heart desires, and it might be the world’s only underpriced $16/bottle beer.