This Thanksgiving Beer Is For The Bird

Try Serving Well-Crafted Local Beer At The Table, Pilgrim

Lisa Morrison, Staff Writer

UPDATED: 2:28 p.m. EST November 21, 2003

Everywhere I look these days, there's another article about what wine to serve with Thanksgiving dinner.

If I see one more write-up about how chardonnays go with cranberries, or how merlot will make the meal, I think I am going to make like the turkeys and run for cover.

Que syrah, syrah! I am bucking the trend and going traditional this year.


I am serving beer.

After all, when the pilgrims sought a spot for their permanent landing in America, they did so, according to their diaries, because they ran out of beer on the Mayflower: "Our victuals being much spent, especially our beer," one diary read.

Apparently, in addition to finding shelter and food, some enterprising pilgrims set out to refurbish the beer supplies when the group first landed at Plymouth Rock. Perhaps these inventive immigrants used roots or tree bark for this inaugural ale, since the pilgrims obviously hadn't yet started growing grain.

How much more traditional can you get than that?

So, it's with Pilgrim pride that I will be guiding my guests through an exploration of beer and turkey with all the trimmings on this most American of holidays.

It's actually not as crazy as it sounds. With all the varieties of craft and imported beer available in this land, beer really offers more tasty options than wine -- from appetizers to that final slice of pumpkin pie.

"One of the most common things people ask a sommelier is 'What wine goes with Thanksgiving dinner?' The answer is beer," says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery in New York City, and author of "The Brewmaster's Table, Discovering The Pleasures Of Real Beer With Real Food" (Ecco Publishers, $29.95).

The trick to matching beer with food, says Oliver, is to first "match up the impact on your palate." In other words, pair delicate foods with delicate beers and heftier fare with beer that's got a little more "oomph" to it. Next, he says, match some of the flavors in the food with similar flavors in the beer.

"I call this the 'flavor hook' -- the part of the beer's flavor that links up directly with the flavor of the food," Garrett told a group of craft brewers earlier this year in New Orleans.

Caramel, coffee and, yes, even chocolate flavors, prevail in many seasonal beers this time of year, making it easy to pair with traditional Thanksgiving fare.

Another trick: contrast the food with the beer. I find this works especially well with cloyingly rich foods laden with fat. A slightly bitter beer (thanks to an extra dose of hops) will cut right through that fat, letting you enjoy some of the other flavors that might have gotten "lost" on your palate thanks to all that richness.

Of course, beer pairing, like wine pairing, is a bit subjective. But here are some course-by-course suggestions:

Salads and appetizers: Look for local, regional or imported wheat beers. Some words to search for include weissbier, witbier, hefeweizen and "American wheat beer." A German-style Kolsch or a crisp pilsner would also be a good choice. If you add blue cheese or nuts, try a locally or regionally brewed doppelbock. Another good "all-around" choice is an American pale ale or amber ale.

Turkey and trimmings: Roasting that turkey has created some interesting caramel (and, depending on the cook's prowess, some smoky) flavors along with the nice herbal notes from the seasonings and stuffing. When enjoying beer with the bird, you have choices! Try a beer that matches those caramel notes, like an American amber ale, a dubbel or tripel (Belgian-style beers) or an Oktoberfest (there's a reason why they serve roasted chickens at the Oktoberfest in Munich). Or you can go for something that more closely supports the actual light meat and herbal seasonings of the turkey (and might even contrast with some of the fattier fare). Look for a locally brewed biere de garde, a Belgian-style tripel (many local and regional brewers make one) or a Belgian-style saison.

Mid-meal: I noticed that many wine stewards suggested a Champagne or sparkling wine to go with that "resting period" between the big meal and dessert. A beer that is created like Champagne is a recent emigrant to the United States. DeuS, Brut des Flandres, is a new beer brewed in Belgium and bottled in France using the methode Champagnoise, thus marrying the best of the beer world with the best in wines. It is similarly priced to a good Champagne or sparkling wine, and worth every penny. If you want to wow your guests, try DeuS.

Dessert: Pumpkin pie, of course, is a natural. Try a local winter warmer or "spiced ale" as an accompaniment, or head over to "the dark side" of beer for a stout or porter. Oatmeal stouts, imperial stouts and roasty porters all provide enough chocolate and/or coffee goodness to support your dessert. Pecan pie? Same thing. Or add a Baltic porter, which is the rich cousin in the porter family. Cheesecake? Try the above or add a Belgian-style fruity lambic like a framboise (raspberry flavored) or a kriek (cherry). Both are very good companions with chocolate, too.

Oh, and another thing -- with the possible exception of the DeuS, you will be spending considerably less than wine for each 22-ounce to 750 ml bottle of beer you serve, making it even more enticing to try a few new ones along with your traditional foods.

One final note: I know many of these terms might not mean a lot to you right now, but remember when you didn't know how to say "gewŁrztraminer"? Maybe you still don't. (I had to look up how to spell it to write this article.) It didn't stop you from picking up a bottle or two of wine for special meals. Don't let it stop you from exploring beer.

It might be a bit scary (yet exciting), embarking into this new realm. But like the pilgrims who first settled here on this fine land, you, too can enter a brave new world this Thanksgiving by serving finely crafted domestic and imported beers at your table.

And what about those testy dinner guests who whine for wine?

Tell 'em to put a cork in it.

Copyright 2003 by All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

---linked with permission of the author.