Turkey Day is almost here, and we’ll be running articles geared towards helping you bring craft beer and Thanksgiving together better than ever before.
Yesterday we gave you some ideas and tactics for bringing craft beer to the Thanksgiving table, and today we are going to take a closer look at how to pick the beers to pair with your meal. Beer and food are a magical combination, but the secrets behind picking a great pairing are actually quite simple and easily applied.
Wine has long reigned as the most prominent tipple to accompany food, but as craft beer surges in popularity more people are discovering what the Belgians have known for centuries: beer can be a superior match to food. Why not experiment with some beer and food pairing this Thanksgiving? While I’d like to present a list of beers paired to the Thanksgiving staples the task is made rather difficult by the vastly different styles, preparations, and flavors in each different families feast. The clean and toasty Octoberfest lager that I’d recommend for a simple roast turkey would be buried and lost in a more strongly flavored smoked turkey.
Thankfully, the three basic concepts of pairing food and beer are simple and easily applied. With just a little forethought you can devise pairings that fit with the idiosyncrasies of your family’s traditions.
Equality of Intensity
Randy Mosher calls this “matching strength to strength” and it is simply a matter of matching robust, assertive, and strong beers with foods that are also full-flavored and intense. Delicate and subtle foods are better served by a lighter, more nuanced beer than a hugely hoppy and alcoholic double IPA. The foods on the Thanksgiving table are mostly quite intense in flavor with pungent herbs, rich sauces, and highly flavorful cooking methods like roasting and frying. It can be tough to find a place for the more delicate beers on the table. My suggestion would be to serve lighter and more subtle beers as an apéritif before the meal and a range of medium to high intensity beers during the meal.
The final foods to hit the Thanksgiving table are some of the most intense: the pies. Pecan, apple, and pumpkin pies are all strongly flavored with spices, intensely sweet or tart, and rich; they demand a very assertive beer indeed. I love a coffee stout (even an imperial version) during the desert course; these beers are bold enough to stand up to the heavy deserts and make for a fitting end to the feast (more recommendations of pairings for pie here).
Strength in beer and food is not only about flavor; texture is another aspect that can be used in pairings. Rich and fatty foods require a bolder brew than a lighter fare needs. A beer’s carbonation level is also something that you can use to your advantage when pairing, and a more effervescent beer will match with richer and stronger foods because the bubbles in the beer actually serve to scrub your tongue and palate after each sip. This is one trait that gives beer a distinct advantage over wine when pairing with food! Since the Turkey Day feast is filled with such rich and heavy dishes – that all get drowned in even richer gravy – a beer with a high level of carbonation does well during the main portion of the meal. A lively Belgian Pale Ale, like the BPA from Brewery Ommegang in New York, is a great choice for the main event of the feast as it will continuously refresh the palate with its high carbonation and crisp, dry finish.
Similar to the BPA in flavor profile, though more intense, would be a farmhouse ale or saison. The Stone / Dogfish Head / Victory collaboration beer Saison du BUFF is a fantastic match for the Thanksgiving feast as it is bold enough to stand up to the flavorful dishes and exhibits the lively carbonation that helps refresh the palate. The herbal additions to the farmhouse brew highlight many of the flavors in the meal as well and demonstrate the next basic paring concept.
Harmonizing Intensifies Flavors
The flavors of sage in traditional cornbread dressing are matched, and intensified, by the herbal notes of sage the Saison du BUFF. This “harmonization” of flavors between the beer and the food is the most easily applied concept of pairing. Match the dominant flavor of a beer with similar flavors in a dish then both are elevated. An on-the-nose example would be The Bruery’s Autumn Maple. This strong ale – brewed with yams and lots of rich maple syrup – will taste even more yam-y and maple-y when matched with the plate of candied sweet potatoes. It’s a simple concept that works great especially when used to amplify the more subtle flavors present in the food/beer.
One application of this concept that works well on turkey day is matching a beer to the flavors in the meal’s main event: usually the turkey. As I mentioned previously the clean flavors, subtle caramel sweetness, and herbal bitterness of an Octoberfest lager are a great accompaniment to the roast turkey (and also a bread stuffing.) But what if your family smokes their turkey (or serves a smokey ham)? A subtle smoky beer would be an obvious match here. Stone’s Smoked Porter or their new collaboration The Perfect Crime would both stand up to the more flavorful cooking method without overwhelming the side dishes.
The harmonizing flavors concept is easily demonstrated when beer is paired with cheese. So many of the flavors that develop when beer ferments are similar to the flavors in cheese that it can actually be difficult to find a bad match. If your traditions on Thanksgiving include a pre-meal cheese course (as mine always have), then you have the perfect opportunity to show-off beer’s food pairing powers and steal a little of the spotlight from wine. The Brewer’s Association has an excellent cheat-sheet for pairing beer and cheese, but IPAs, nutty brown ales, and funky saisons are all versatile choices with cheese. Also think about what other dishes or sides might use cheese and harmonize those notes with your beer. Gorgonzola cheese sauce on the green beans? Try an IPA with them!
Contrasting Flavors Provide Interesting Interactions
The final basic tenant of food and beer pairing is slightly less obvious than the harmonizing of flavors, but the results are even more powerful. I touched on this idea above when mentioning that carbonation in beer helps refresh the palate, and this “cutting” quality of the carbonation is an example of a contrast and interaction. Another example is the way a malty-sweet beer will balance a salty or spicy dish. It may sound like a strange concept, but the idea of contrasting flavors and exploiting their interactions is already common on the Thanksgiving table in cranberry sauce.
The bright, tart, and sweet flavors of the cranberries help provide a contrast to the rich and earthy meats and veggies of the feast. This same interaction and contrast can be achieved with beer. Serve a tart and fruity bottle of kriek to mirror the effect of the cranberry sauce during the meal. Gueuze, an unsweetened and blended lambic beer, is a fantastic match to the thanksgiving meal for similar reasons, and the bright citric tartness cuts through the meal’s richness. The Lindemans Gueuze Cuvée René is easy to find, inexpensive and quite complex and delicious, and it is a great beer to sneak on the wine lovers at the table.
Perhaps the most common example of contrast and interaction is the effect of a bright and hoppy beer on a meal. The bracing bitterness of a pale ale serves to refresh the palate and balances the flavors of the feast. IPAs will work in this role as well, especially if the drinkers are already familiar with craft beers. The intense citrus and pine flavors of Sierra Nevada’s seasonal, fresh hopped Celebration IPA make it, in my mind, the perfect pair with nearly all the dishes on the Thanksgiving table.
Beer and Food Is Magic, But You Don’t Need to Be a Wizard to Conjure Amazing Pairings
The concepts outlined above are simple and so easy to apply. You don’t have to be a Cicerone whose palate is refined to a razor’s edge to match beer to the Thanksgiving feast. Think about the specific dishes that are traditionally served at your family’s feast, and pick out some bottles that match intensities of the food and either harmonize or contrast with the flavors.
If you have to pick a single style of beer for the whole meal, then choose something that is refreshing, balanced, and of medium strength and intensity. A hoppy pale ale or IPA, a clean Octoberfest, or even a simple brown ale will all support the many dishes and flavors of the Thanksgiving feast, and a tart and dry gueuze can be a wonderful change of pace from more common ales during the meal.
It seems that this week the web is filled with suggestions and lists of beers to serve on Thanksgiving, but we are more interested in giving you the tools to pick your own Turkey Day accompaniments. Presenting a pairing that elevates both the food and the beer is greatly satisfying, and deceptively easy! We encourage you to give it a try.
Of course, if you’re already stressing about preparing the meal or traveling to the in-laws then devising beer and food pairings might not sound like fun to you right now. In that case we’ll be presenting a list of suggested beers in tomorrow’s post, or you can review Dr. Bill’s suggestions, or the pairings recommended by Serious Eats, Imbibe Magazine, Food Republic, or even a full menu and beer suggestions on CraftBeer.com.
- Remixed image by Dinner Series via Flickr