The year was 1620. In a leaking boat off the cold, rugged coast of what would come to be known as Massachusetts, a situation was getting serious. “My God, we’ve run out of beer,” they might have said. On their way to the New World, the Pilgrims had run out of that most precious of beverages.
Because of its alcohol content and botanical preservatives, beer was the only safe drink on the long journey across the Atlantic. When supplies gave out, the Pilgrims made a hasty landfall. The rest of the story, we all know well.
When you consider the historical facts, it becomes clear that Thanksgiving is essentially a beer holiday. Yet luckily for us, running out of beer is rarely a life-or-death situation in our modern lives. In fact — discussions of politics at the dinner table aside — Thanksgiving rarely gets more difficult than choosing the right beer to go with your turkey. But fear not, I have a comprehensive guide for choosing the right beer to complement your turkey feast.
When it comes to food pairings, beer has a lot to offer: From light, crisp lagers to dark, roasty stouts and lovely, mellow nut-brown ales in between, there’s something for just about everyone, so when it comes time to sit down for an epic meal consisting of a flightless bird, what really matters most are the flavors you most want to accentuate.
For many, the first choice for any beer-related occasion remains a spiced seasonal beer — but don’t do that to your taste buds if you plan on enjoying your turkey. By now, pumpkin mania has thankfully started to wane. Besides, if you’re going to have pumpkin pie for dessert, you might as well have it on your plate and not in your pint glass.
With that said, a solid holiday brew can be an excellent choice for many reasons. First, holiday beers are typically ales with deep, semi-sweet caramel notes and hints of spice — as opposed to a whole stick of cinnamon. This makes a holiday beer a versatile addition to the meal. The inherent sweetness of stuffing, the savory notes of roasted turkey and the tangy goodness of cranberry sauce — especially the homemade variety — can all be accommodated by a good, late fall or winter, seasonal beer. Intrigued? Be bold and try for holiday ale. Just be warned, the spice is not always welcome, and winter seasonals typically have higher alcohol content — but the added octane need not be a deterrent.
Nut Brown/English Pale Ale
For the less bold, or those attempting to please the crowd, try for a nut-brown, also known as an English pale ale. Non-obtrusive and well balanced, brown ales can handle just about anything — even the unidentifiable casserole that some obscure relative brings every year. But if you’re afraid of dark beer, English-style pale ales will still have enough malt backbone to compliment the range of dishes found on turkey day. However, malty brown ales may not be your style.
Saison / Bière de Garde
For those trying to make a statement, consider the Saison or Bière de Garde styles. Originating in Belgium and France, respectively, these hoppy, wheat beers will be more than a match for the tryptophan in your turkey. With bright, citrusy and complex hop flavors, they will provide a bright counterpoint to a meal that can be an overload of cloying but delicious gravy-laden morsels.
If you’re one who opts for the “trashcan,” a.k.a., fried turkey, you could still choose the Saison. But let’s be honest: If you’re frying your bird, you might as well choose the classic American Lager, which won a blue ribbon once, so it ought to pair nicely. This is not to say that fried turkey is low class — if it is, then anyone who likes succulent turkey is a redneck. The point is, let the beer be an emphatic counterpoint or complement to your personal Thanksgiving style. If the blue ribbon leaves a bad taste in your mouth, consider a pilsner-style lager, such as Victory Brewing Company’s Prima Pils.
For your final consideration I suggest Scottish ale, also known as “Wee Heavy,” made with peat smoked barley. Scottish ales should emphasize the sweet and roasted flavors in your meal. Some have more pronounced roasted flavors than others, but generally speaking, Scottish ale is a splendid companion to anything you can roast in the oven. True to Scotland, they tend to have higher alcohol content by volume, but, once again, that may not be a bad thing.
So when or if you run out of beer over Thanksgiving break, remember the Pilgrims who persevered on what may be called one of the most epic beer runs in history. Give thanks to our beer-loving, beer-brewing forefathers this year, as well as the hard working people who continue the tradition in their stead. And as always, enjoy your brews safely.