I received a text from a former coworker today. It read, simply:
What’s the best thing to get?
This would seem rather random to normal, sensible human beings. But for me, I go directly to one of two things: beer or dogs. Since I know this gentleman already has a dog, by process of elimination, he must mean beer.
At the brewery? Or in general?
[Side note: “the brewery” refers to Brewery Rickoli, where I am currently “Doer of Stuff”]
Ah… Thanksgiving. That most food-centric of all American celebrations. And, as he asked, what to drink?
Garrett Oliver, in his excellent book on beer and food titled The Brewmaster’s Table, posits that the best beer you can possibly pair your Thanksgiving feast with is Bière de Garde. While I can’t debate that point (the earthiness, the herbaceous quality, the general funkiness), I did have some slightly more accessible options to offer up as well.
Now, my friend probably expected me to reply with “the IPA” or something similarly brief and to-the-point. HA! While I could do that (and make his life simpler, I suppose) I would rather give him the education of not only which beer to choose, by why.
I SHALL FORCE KNOWLEDGE UPON YOU, WHETHER YOU WANT IT OR NOT!
My response was a wall of text that need not be reproduced here. Instead, I will go the more refined route and actually format and punctuate my thoughts.
Beer pairings with a “typical” American Thanksgiving meal. In this case, I will qualify “typical” as Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce. My friend threw a wrench into my plans by giving me green bean casserole as well. Since I wouldn’t touch the stuff with my neighbor’s absurdly large television antenna , I am going off of what I know the individuals components taste like.
– Munich Dunkel: I just love dunkels. There is something about them: malty, slightly rich, roasted with a lovely chocolate back note, but still crisp because of the lagering. They are my go-to beer for so many dishes. Again, here, a dunkel will play nice with all of the different parts of the menu. The cranberries will contrast nicely with the chocolatey notes and marry with the refreshing lager character. The melanoidins (the lovely brown bits created when you put high heat to food) in the stuffing and (yes, again) the turkey skin are perfectly matched by commiserate flavors in the beer. There is little to no spice in a dunkel, so those flavors will have no competition. Dunkels are the least alcoholic of my recommendations (4.5-5.6% ABV), and can be a really nice session beer to sup from early morning turkey prep through late evening turkey comas. Specific brand: Yazoo Dos Perros (technically a Vienna Lager, but it’s dark enough to qualify as a dunkel), Pug Ryan Dead Eye Dunkel. I am absolutely addicted to this beer and grab several six-packs where ever I can find them.
– American Brown Ale: malty, slightly toasty – to pair with the turkey skin – but with enough hop bite to handle the richness of the potatoes and bring out some of the tartness of the cranberries. Because of a chocolate/nutty/caramelly characteristic, this beer will also be stellar with the pie. I can’t think of many things better than sitting in front of a fire with a big slice of berry pie, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a solid American brown ale. Since the majority of American brown ales are relatively low in alcohol (4.3-6.2% ABV), this beer can also be enjoyed all evening without much worry. Specific brands: Big Sky Moose Drool, Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale, Brewery Rickoli Elke.
– Belgian Golden Strong or Belgian Dark Strong: Belgian golden strong ales are fruity, dry, and spicy. Belgian dark strong ales have many of the same flavors of the golden strong, but with more toasty, chocolatey notes and more residual sweetness. Both have enough Belgian/European ale yeast funk to match with the much maligned green bean casserole. The dark strong will go better with some of the more roasted aspects of the meal (stuffing, that horrible sweet potato marshmallow monstrosity, and turkey skin) while the golden strong will cut through richer aspects and lift some of the more delicate flavors (mashed potatoes, any version of sweet potatoes not spawned by the devil himself, and Brussels sprouts). Anytime you reach for a Belgian or French beer, you can be fairly certain that it was brewed with food pairings in mind. And Thanksgiving bears many of the aspects of a good European meal (plenty of meat, rich sides, and bread). As denoted by their names, Belgian strong ales are strong (7.5-11% ABV), and may not be the beer you drink all day if you want to avoid the status of drunkicorn.* Specific brands of dark: Chimay Blue, Rochefort 8. Specific brands of golden: Delirium Tremens, Duvel, Russian River Damnation, Brewery Rickoli Quicher Bichen (a Dutch Golden Strong Ale, so a little milder in the spice category, but very easy to drink. A fine gateway beer).
– Bière de Garde: this beer has some of the great European yeasty funkiness of the Belgian strong ales, but with an added herbaciousness that will work wonders with stuffing and side dishes and, shockingly, the turkey skin. Bière de Gardes can run the gamet in color from blonde to reddish-brown and each offers its own contribution to the menu. I would recommend leaning more towards the copper Bière de Gardes as they will pick up on the melanoidins without sacrificing any of the dry cutting power. Slightly less alcoholic than Belgian strong ales, Bière de Gardes are still formidable, so should be consumed in quantity with caution. Specific brands: Lost Abbey Gift of the Magi, Brewery Ommegang Bière de Mars, 3 Monts Amber Ale On Lees.
– Christmas beers: these beers are often laden with caramel, toffee, toast, and chocolate flavors that make them both a joy and a challenge. These beers will clash with green bean casseroles, most salads, and Brussels sprouts. However, they will marry nicely to the turkey (and skin!), sweet potatoes, and dessert. Maybe not your go-to for the entire meal, but a good consideration to mix things up a bit. Make sure you find a beer that isn’t too spicy (as in nutmeg and pepper, not chili peppers) or it will overwhelm everything else. The ABV on these beers varies wildly, so be aware of that as well. Specific brands: Anderson Valley Winter Solstice (I just cracked open this beer from 2009, and despite an ABV of only 6.9%, it was still gorgeous), Corsendonk Christmas Ale, Anchor Our Special Ale (varies year after year).
Beyond these four examples, here are some of the flavor profiles to look for when considering what to pair with your Thanksgiving meal:
Turkey, stuffing, gravy: toasty, roasty, herbal
Mashed potatoes, bread: effervescent (to cut the fat), herbal, earthy
Sweet potatoes (not the unholy marriage of marshmallows and sweet potatoes. I will live in denial that anything so profane exists): caramel, chocolate, earthy
Green bean casserole: herbal, effervescent (again, the cutting power), bright hops
Pumpkin pie: spices, caramel, toasty
Fruit pie: caramel, toasty, fruity, bright hops
It is rare that everyone will agree on a single beer that goes best with an entire meal. Especially a meal as diverse as Thanksgiving. However, by doing a little bit of homework and planning ahead, it is easy to pick a variety that you know will work wonderfully, and will give people the illusion that they have created these amazing pairings on their own. Because it’s all about that warm fuzzy feeling (and beer, mostly, it’s about beer).
* Drunkicorn (n):
The host of a party who begins to drink so early in the preparations that they are inebriated well before the beginning of the “main event”. Distinguished by the propensity of said individual to pass out and their friends to break off a massive icicle and place it on the individual’s head to make them look like a unicorn.