It’s cold when you leave for work in the morning and dark when you get home. You need to clear your yard of leaves. And now there’s all that shopping to do for Thanksgiving dinner, which is coming up fast. The vast majority of Americans have the shopping list somewhat on autopilot—turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, apple and pumpkin pies—so aside from tinkering with some of the side dishes, something you might want to try differently is treating the holiday meal as a beer dinner.
Beer dinners are fun and educational. It’s interesting to note what you’re tasting in the food and the beer, and how those flavors interact with each other. Does the bitterness of an IPA cut through the fat in a charcuterie plate? The chocolatey maltiness of a brown ale contrast with the tanginess of cranberries? The sweetness in a barleywine complement a brown-sugar-and-molasses-heavy pecan pie? Yes, you bet they do.
The problem is that there are so many beer styles and you have other stuff to do besides research what they are and what foods they go with. Add to that the number of different foods available during the main meal—usually about eight—and there’s no way you’re going to find a perfect beer to go with every food. Instead, aim for beers that are best going to match the main components of each course.
Here, I’ll make it easy for you by telling you what three styles of beer best pair with each of the three phases that my family’s Thanksgiving meal typically runs through. (We’ve never really strayed from the traditional—no turduckens or tofurkeys in our household.) As a brewery owner and operator, I’ve been behind the bar long enough to know that everyone’s palate is different and some of you are not fans of these styles. So, I’ll note an alternative or two as well, and hopefully this short guide will be able to suit everyone’s taste.
Pour a pale ale with your apps. Since I was a kid, as the family gathered there were always generously large plates of cheese, crackers, nuts, cured meats, olives, and some crunchy vegetables such as celery and carrots. Nowadays, we call it charcuterie and it all seems so fancy. Hoppy, often citrusy (but piney can work too), bitterness is a great complement to sharp cheeses like cheddar, and the light malts of a pale ale work well with nuts and crackers. If there are a lot of fatty meats on your plate, the beer’s combination of acidity and carbonation will cut through the fat.
Alternatives: A light, refreshing Pilsner with more earthy hops can ease you gently into a full day of food and drink. Or, if you want to go big right out of the gate (and hand over your car keys to a designated driver), a sweet barleywine is delicious with heavier cheeses like a creamy brie or crumbly blue.
Take tripel with your turkey. Okay, you made it through the apps, and now you’re being told it’s time to sit down for the big meal. Maybe you worked some of the earlier gorging off tossing around a football. Or you’ve just emerged from a short food coma that has left you groggy yet ravenous. Whether you’re inhaling or forcing down each bite, you’re going to be working with a lot of flavors and textures—the crisp, caramelized skin of the turkey (even crispier if you deep fried it in your driveway) and the mild saltiness of its meat; the deep umami goodness of the gravy; the bready herbiness of the stuffing; the bittersweet cranberry sauce (I still love the gelatinous type from a can); the buttery creaminess of mashed potatoes; the mild, sweet earthiness of sweet potatoes; and the garlic and almond nuttiness mixed in with your green beans or the bacon and shallots with your Brussels sprouts.
If you were to pick a perfect beer pairing for each of these dishes, they’d be different, and you’d be consuming more alcohol than you should. You need a real workhorse that’s going to provide complement and contrast to everything on your plate, and have enough carbonation to clear the last bite’s flavors off your tongue so that you’re ready to fully experience all the flavors in the next bite. That’s where Belgian-style strong ales come in. I’m recommending a tripel, which is a light-colored, higher alcohol (7.5% to 9.5% alcohol by volume) beer with a complex mix of spicy and fruity flavors with a delicate malt base. The experience of drinking a tripel rivals that of a good wine, with the pleasant and previously noted palate-cleansing effects of high carbonation. The food will pop, and you may find yourself relaxing to the point where you can tune out the political debate that’s erupting at the table.
Alternatives: A brown ale or Oktoberfest lager can be a good, lower-alcohol alternative. Both styles rely primarily on malts for their flavor, with the brown being a bit more roasty and chocolatey, and the Oktoberfest being more toasty and biscuity. Both are great with turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. The brown might better complement the gravy and cut through the creaminess of the mashed potatoes. If browns aren’t your thing, the mild flavor of an Oktoberfest works with almost anything. Choosing the beer you want with a meal all depends on your favorite of the flavors on your plate—focus on that and pick the beer that best matches it.
Go dark with dessert. It’s been an hour or three since the main table was cleared. What have you been doing? Watching football? Getting suckered into a political shouting match? Doing your best tryptophan-induced impression of Rip Van Winkle? Changing into any elastic-waisted pant you can find? Well, I hope you’re ready to wrap up with some pie. Whether it’s apple, pumpkin, sweet potato, pecan, berry, coconut, or banana, the one beer style that is a 100% win with dessert is imperial stout. Whether you get one that’s just a straight-up stout or one flavored with coffee, vanilla, banana, chili peppers, or bourbon barrels, it’s gonna work. The chocolate malt flavors, the roasted barley, the caramel malts. They all combine to create flavors that rival the best coffee or espresso with any dessert.
Alternatives: Another dark option that goes well with dessert is a barleywine. Despite its name, this is a beer. There are no grapes or other fruit products. It’s made primarily from barley, just like any beer. It’s called a barleywine because of its high alcohol content. In the old days, before IPAs could approach 10 or 11 percent alcohol, barleywines—which can go as high as 12 percent alcohol by volume—were some of the biggest beers around. Since the alcohol content got as high as some wines, the beer was known as barleywine. These beers are dark, but not as dark as porters or stouts (a porter can be a suitable alternative for dessert, too.) They tend to be sweeter than a stout, sometimes with flavors of stone fruits, like plums. Great with pie, or if you’re too full, skip dessert and have the beer as an aperitif.
Just please remember to drink responsibly during the holiday. If you have one beer during each of the three courses above, probably spread out over four or five hours, you should be okay. But everyone has his or her own tolerances. Don’t get behind the wheel of a car even if you’re feeling a little buzz. Thanksgiving traffic is horrendous, and it’s all too easy to get into an accident. Have a good time but stay safe. Enjoy the holiday, everyone!
Mike Borruso is a writer and editor by day, and spends his free time as one of the owners/operators of Fairfield Craft Ales, a music-inspired, small-batch brewery in Stratford, Connecticut.