Thanksgiving dinner is both a golden opportunity and hard-sell for beer. As with other “big meals” this is traditional stomping ground for wine, but there are several factors that cross signals for the boozy grape juice and point in the direction of beer.
Turkey is possibly the mildest flavoured meat of all. So, a good opportunity for a straightforward, crisp white wine, right? Two problems with that. First, it’s almost always cold enough by the middle of October that I want something hardier and more powerful. Even more than the weather, the side dishes are problematic. Rich, butter-reinforced mashed potatoes, herb-ridden bread stuffing, and hearty gravy would all overwhelm a simple Pinot Gris or even in an unoaked Chardonnay.
There are enough cousins in the beer family tree that it’s much easier to find an appropriate pairing among its branches. Add in the advantage that opening a bottle of beer almost always means committing to fewer servings – so you can easily choose a different one for appetizer, main, and dessert – and the choice is obvious.
Which beer is best for the table this Canadian Thanksgiving? Well, there are a few.
What the Experts Say
In The Brewmasters Table, Garrett Oliver comes down squarely in favour of biere de garde for Thanksgiving dinner. After extolling the style’s affinity for the side dishes he writes: “Then the caramelized malts meet the browned turkey skin, the biscuity malt flavors match the lightly nutty flavor of the meat, and the carbonation lifts everything.”
Last year, Serious Eats ran an installment of their Ask a Cicerone column with our topic as its central question. Answers were all over the place, but I was most attracted to tripel as an option because I tend to agree with Valerie Smith of Ecliptic Brewing that “Belgian Tripels like Westmalle and Tripel Karmeliet have enough alcohol to cut through the fats of gravy, buttery flavors,roasted or fried turkey, and creamy mashed potatos. They can also stand up to off flavored, sulfury foods like brussel sprouts and creamed onions.” On top of the alcohol, I think the tripel’s fruity characteristics also lend contrast and balance to all the various herbal ones in the food.
What about pumpkin beers? Aren’t they the obvious choice? Well, not entirely because the problem is that they are more accurately pumpkin-pie-spice beers. I find those flavours tend to clash, especially with actual pumpkin pie. Imperial stouts and robust porters are my choice to go with the traditional Thanksgiving dessert. You might think this sounds wacky unless you’ve had a really good pumpkin pie made with a chocolate-laden graham crust or noticed how many millions of pumpkin-pie spice coffee drinks big chains sell every year.
Wild Card: Cider
If you feel that your drink selection absolutely has to send the message that can read a calendar and know what season it is, cider is the way to go. One of the current field of very dry, slightly sour hard ciders will be able to pick out and highlight the rainbow of food flavors. The slight apple sweetness can help round out the flavour of turkey and brighten the earthy-richness of sausage dressing.
Best Bet: Saison
Only allowed one bottle I’d have to come down on the side of saison. I agree with The Saint’s Jesse Vallins in that Serious Eats piece that saison has the versatility, dryness, and effervescence called for to match such a complicated menu. I’ll add that saison can also be special. Pull out a two-year-old bottle of Dupont’s Vieille Provision and even the crustiest wine snob will have to concede that this isn’t “just beer”.