This time of year, wine writers do their best to graft a wine choice onto a dinner that does not really go well with wine. Bland turkey with side dishes running from sweet to rich and savory presents too complex a meal for a single wine to complement successfully. Most wind up recommending something like pinot noir or an oaked chardonnay as the least dissatisfactory, or they give up entirely and recommend Beaujolais Nouveau because it’s coincidentally available at this time of year.
Thanksgiving is meant for beer. Indeed, the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock because they were running low on beer! Beer was the beverage of choice back then, even among Puritans, because it was safe from waterborne illnesses. The fact that the world of beer presents infinitely more choices than “red or white” makes it a better choice for today’s Turkey Days as well.
The best answer to the question of what kind of beer to serve with Thanksgiving dinner is “your favorite,” of course. If you like Bud Light or Corona with a lime wedge, don’t let some beer snob like me throw you off your game. Cheap beer and football games have become a cherished part of our Holiday tradition, so pop open a can of Natty Light if that sounds good.
But, if you’re interested in something a little different, not because you want to impress anyone but because you want a fresh flavor combination, here are 5 style suggestions, with a particular brand chosen as an exemplar.
1) English Pale Ale (Bass Ale): This is the classic beer of England, and probably what the Pilgrims yearned for most at the first Thanksgiving. Though the Bass Brewery was not built at Burton on Trent until the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the copper colored, hoppy, minerally ale typifies the best of traditional English ales. It’s a complex beverage, with fruitiness to go enhance the turkey, hoppiness to contrast with the sweets, and a reasonable alcohol level to allow you to have two over the course of a lengthy Thanksgiving dinner.
2) Saison (Hennepin Ale): Saison is a rustic French farmhouse ale. Historically speaking, it’s all wrong to suggest a French ale to go with a meal rooted in English/American history, but this style is simply the best possible beverage for a Thanksgiving dinner, so leave history to the scholars. Saison is a style designed for refreshing drinkability, originally to serve to harvest workers in the late summer. It is dry and complex, with a little citrus and coriander in the aroma, and a tartness and hop bite in the mouth. Saison is an under-appreciated marvel to go with rich foods, and Hennepin Ale is usually available in local stores for under $6. I also highly recommend Boulevard’s Saison Brett, and Saison DuPont, if you can find it. Seriously, this style of beer is perfect for Thanksgiving.
3) Oktoberfest (Paulaner Oktoberfest-Märzen): Oktoberfest is the pumpkin pie of beer – rich, sweet, autumnal and wonderful. Everybody loves an Oktoberfest, and Paulaner makes a good choice. Garrison Keillor recently observed, however, that pumpkin pie is a testament to mediocrity; the best pumpkin pie you’ve ever had is not much different from the worst. The same might be said of Oktoberfest; almost any of the brands you will find on the shelves are going to deliver a malty, clean-finishing drink that will make your turkey taste better, your sweet potatoes more golden, and your inlaws more tolerable.
4) German Pilsner (Blue Paddle Pilsner): This style is close enough to “normal American beer” that your non-beer snob friends will give it a try, but it will shock them with an amped-up flavor profile. The German style of pilsner differs from the original Czech version by a more aggressive hop profile and a drier finish. Your first sip of Blue Paddle (by New Belgium) will shock you with its hop bitterness, but it’s rounded out by the candy-like sweetness of pilsner malt. Not everyone will love this beer, and some will find it too bitter, but a few will find it to be a revelation, and a cause for Thanksgiving.
5) Holiday Beer (Nutcracker Ale): Please be careful if you decide to go with a holiday beer – most of them are vile concoctions adulterated with spices and fruits that cover up a mediocre or awful brew. Almost anything with pumpkin falls in this category, and cinnamon is also a bad sign. In fact, I probably ought to delete this fifth suggestion and start over with something safe, like a good Nut Brown Ale, but I feel like too many people will be tempted by the cutesy labels and crappy logic that fuel the holiday beer mania if I don’t address it directly. If you want to get a seasonal holiday beer, get yourself some Nutcracker Ale. Nutcracker Ale, by Boulevard, is a beer of real merit, with complex caramel malt and a solid citrus hop flavor. It’s a great beer. If you want to try a beer that promises sugar plums and elves, I admire and encourage your sense of adventur – you may stumble upon a gem. But it’s probably not an appropriate beer to complement a meal, and you’ll save a lot of money by picking them up out of the close-out bin in January.
Happy Thanksgiving, readers. Count yourself lucky to live in a time and place where literally hundreds of beer offerings are available to excite your taste. Cheers!