Pairing craft beer and food is becoming a more popular subject every year (yay!), and Thanksgiving, the most high-profile meal of the year, is a great time to experiment with the magic of matching flavors and finding contrasts. Predictably, every craft beer publication and every beer writer tackles the subject, and I’ve been thrilled to see Turkey Day pairings get so much more coverage this year. There’s only one problem — most of the advice, while well-meaning and mostly on-point, isn’t very useful.
This will be my third year writing about beer and the Thanksgiving holiday, and I’ve always tried to approach the problem of how to serve craft beer at the feast with an eye to the realities of the holiday. There’s one specific issue that I’ve seen in most of the articles on the topic, even some of my own: everyone is offering suggestions on which beer to pair with which dish at the feast. Amber ales with turkey, saisons with the green beans, brown ales with the yams, etc etc. I’m not going to link to any examples here — they should be easy enough to find and I don’t want to single anybody out — but I think the recommendations for individual beers for the disparate elements of the meal is pretty useless advice. Who pours themselves four beers, one for each dish, when sitting down with their family? Unless you’re serving the feast in separate courses this idea of different brews for different sides is purely academic.
What you really need to do is pair beers for the different “events” or “movements” of the holiday. A beer for the chaotic pre-meal time when guests are arriving and the cooks are finishing their prep and people are snacking and watching football. A beer for the meal that doesn’t require caveats, instructions, or too much thought. A beer for the period of post-gorging torpor.
Pairings do not always have to be about matching beers to foods; I find that matching a beer to a time, mood, or experience can be just as effective and magical as a spot-on food pairing.
Generally, I like to keep the pre-meal beers light and lively. Pilsners (of course), witbiers, and lighter pale ales (maybe even a session IPA) work well here. Big barrel aged stouts, barleywines, and other boozy brews are perfect for the post-meal stupor (and they go great with dessert), and coffee beers — especially big imperial versions — are especially suited for pie-time. The toughest call is the one-beer-to-rule-them-all for the actual meat of the feast. Instead of trying to select a beer with qualities that match to specific elements of the various menu items, I think about the meal as a whole and what I want the beer I’m drinking to accomplish. Do I want a bold, flavorful brew that will stand up to the richness and cornucopia of strong flavors on my plate that’s piled high with stuffing and turkey and all covered in gravy? Or, do I want a more subdued sipper that will help wash all those delectable dishes down without fighting for my attention? What does the guest list look like? Are there devoted craft aficionados at the table? If so, perhaps a funky and tart gueuze would find some fans. Or is the family gathered more of a Bud Light crowd and a Vienna Lager would be a more approachable choice?
Any way you slice it, the Thanksgiving meal is overflowing with big flavors that can easily overwhelm precious pairings. Err on the side of simplicity, and look for beers with lively carbonation and enough hop bitterness to help cleanse the palate. Saisons, IPAs (Sierra Nevada Celebration is a longtime stalwart on the Verive family table) and flavorful lagers (Dortmunder, Vienna Lager, and any Oktoberfest beers that you’ve managed to save) are particularly suited. Save the delicate matches for dessert.
If you know me or have heard me speak about pairing beer and food, you know that it is something I love and take very seriously. There’s a magic that can be unlocked with careful consideration of flavors, contrasts, and interplay. However, as much as the Thanksgiving holiday is focused the table and the food, it’s really about sharing traditions, and thanks, with family and friends. The last thing you want the beer to do is get in the way of the togetherness of the event. There’s also enough stress wrapped up in the family and the food prep and the rest of the Holidays, beer shouldn’t add more stress.
For the record, I’ll be showing up to my family’s house in Grass Valley on Thursday with a six-pack of Celebration, a six-pack of Pale 31, and a couple bottles of ERB Stimulus and SCB Saber Toothed Squirrel.
Have a happy Turkey Day!