Family, friends, food and tradition. For many people, these are the things that capture the essence of Thanksgiving. It’s a day of reconnecting around a table overfilled with a savory feast. Roast turkey and bread stuffing, cranberries, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts — these are the foods that form the centerpiece of this festive gathering. And let’s admit it, green bean casserole is a tradition for many of us.
Drink is also part of the mix. For many that means wine. But beer is every bit as elegant as wine and much more approachable. It’s a social drink by history and by nature, made for bringing folks together. And truth be told, a wider range of flavors makes beer a much better match than wine for turkey and trimmings. From bread-crust, caramel, honey and herbs to toast, roast and even fruit, beer provides a perfect match to every flavor found in traditional holiday fare.
My go-to pairings to Thanksgiving turkey and trimmings are Belgian tripels, golden ales and saisons. All three styles feature bready malt accompanied by fruity and spicy fermentation notes that offer both complements and contrasts to every dish. They’ve got elevated alcohol and high carbonation to cut through any fats and oils, leaving your palate ready for another bite. And Belgian tripels in particular are magical with Brussels sprouts.
Westmalle Tripel is the original of the style and arguably the best. This strong golden ale is bone-dry with a sharp, bitter bite. Overtones of apricots and peaches round out the characteristic flavors of Belgian yeast. It’s 9.5 percent alcohol, but drinks like a beer half that strength.
La Trappe Tripel starts with hints of vanilla and lemon in the nose. A softly sweet, bready malt character is accentuated by notes of lemon, orange and black pepper. High carbonation, medium bitterness and a dry finish make it crisp and cleansing.
Belgian strong golden ales are similar to tripels, but even drier. They emphasize the fruity side of fermentation flavors over the spicy. Duvel is the benchmark beer for the style. Its effervescent carbonation makes if feel almost like Champagne. Pomme fruits and citrus are the stars of the show with very light, bready malt offering support. It goes out super-dry and crisp with lingering fruit and spice.
Saison is another bubbly, fermentation-driven Belgian ale style that pairs well with turkey day treats. Lighter in weight than tripels or golden ales, these bring spicy black pepper notes that work like seasoning on the food. The flavors of oranges and lemons add a bright counterpoint that accentuates the savory.
Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale from Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City is one of my all-time favorites. Flavors of lemon peel, orange and stone fruits enter into a delightful dance with black pepper and traces of cumin. Light malt sweetness offers support. The finish is just off-dry with lingering fruit, spice, and bitterness.
Colorado Wild Sage Brett Saison from Denver’s Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project is the beer to go with a sage-seasoned turkey. The smell of sage and lemongrass permeate the aroma, with undertones of funky barnyard from the wild brettanomyces yeast. The flavor follows suit with the addition of a light, lemony acidity. Herbs and acid form both a complementary bridge and a cutting contrast to turkey and stuffing.
Malt-forward, German-style lagers are also great on the Thanksgiving Day table. I don’t mean lightweight lagers like Heineken or Stella Artois. I’m talking about full-bodied beers with smooth malt character and slightly elevated alcohol that can hold their own against the rich food.
Although Munich’s Oktoberfest may be over, Oktoberfest style beers are still in abundance in area stores. Caramel-like sweetness and toasted-bread flavors are the hallmark of this style. They build a great bridge to the caramelized turkey skin and light nuttiness of the meat. They also converse with the rich, bready goodness of stuffing, and the earthy sweetness of sweet potatoes. Spicy and herbal notes from European hop varieties provide contrast and pick up on sage, thyme, and rosemary.
There are so many examples of this style to choose from. Our own Schell’s and Summit make nice examples. The Oktoberfest from Left Hand Brewing is one of my personal favorites. If you want one from Germany, look for Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen.
We can’t talk about Thanksgiving without mentioning pumpkin pie. It’s a staple — as much a part of the holiday as turkey. And yes, there’s a beer for that, too.
Think coffee. Anything that you would normally drink with coffee will go just as well with the coffee-tinged flavors of roasty porters and stouts. Roasted malts bring bitterness and acidity to beer that offer the same kind of sugar-cutting contrast as coffee. And why not double this effect by choosing a stout made with actual coffee?
Summit’s Dark Infusion Coffee Milk Stout is a great option. This strong stout is velvety sweet on the palate. Cold-brew coffee made with Brazilian coffee beans provided by St. Paul’s Blackeye Roasting Co. give it a smooth coffee flavor that doesn’t overwhelm the beer. Coffee alternates back and forth with bitter, dark chocolate. Underneath are notes of graham cracker and vanilla. With 8.5 percent alcohol, it’s got the heft to stand up to the sweetest pie.
You can give your porter pairing a direct tie-in to the pie with Epic Brewing Company’s Imperial Pumpkin Porter. Like a milk-chocolate/pumpkin-spice truffle in a glass, this beer combines sweet cocoa and coffee with the flavor of pumpkin and pumpkin spice. Ginger, cinnamon and allspice are all present. But the underlying strong porter never gets lost in the mix. It is definitely beer first and pumpkin-beer second.
The luscious caramel of a strong Scotch ale — also called “wee heavy” — is another great pairing to pumpkin pie. Dirty Bastard from Founders Brewing Co. is a good one. It’s rich, sweet and dripping with caramel malt. Mild bitterness and a low dose of earthy hops keep it from going over the edge into treacle.
Push the caramel pairing theme over the top with an English Barleywine. One of my favorites is J.W. Lee’s Harvest Ale. This is a beer that develops with age and I’ve seen several vintages available in area stores. Harvest Ale brings cavernous malt complexity — caramel, brown sugar, vanilla and dried fruits. The sweetness is barely balanced by gentle hop bitterness. Aged examples take on sherry-like notes.
On second thought, skip the pie and just drink the barley wine. Harvest Ale makes a beautiful after-dinner digestif all on its own. Pour it into a snifter. It’s lovely.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.