Editor's Note: We're trying to find the best beers to drink with our favorite foods. Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is here to help.
Too many people think that beer is great for everyday dining, but reach for wine when it comes to special occasions. The notion is that grape is a more comely companion to the elegant feast than grain. 50 years of pale yellow swill has so deeply ingrained this delusion into our collective psyche that even some otherwise-avid beer fans forget themselves on Thanksgiving Day. They pop the cork on a bottle of bubbles instead of popping the cap on a bottle of suds.
But truth be told, beer's range of flavors makes it a much better match for turkey and trimmings than many would expect. 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.
For the best pairings I reach first for European-style, malt-forward beers. The bready and caramel flavors of malt provide a great complement to the caramelized turkey skin and light nuttiness of the meat. Malt also converses 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 the sage, thyme, and rosemary commonly used to prepare Thanksgiving classics.
One of the ultimate pairings for a traditional Thanksgiving spread is a French Biére de Garde. This farmhouse-style ale from just south of the Belgian border is rich and sweet with honey, caramel, and lightly toasty malt flavors. Herbal hops just balance with very gentle bitterness that is underscored by earthy, musty yeast character. There is something here to match everything on the table. These beers are fizzy and have a finish dry enough to cut through the often heavy foods. Biéres de Garde come in blond, amber, and brown. I like blond the best, but amber is also a tasty option. Leave brown for roastier dishes.
Moving north across the border, another great choice for Turkey Day is a Belgian pale ale or tripel. Tripels have a similar malty sweetness to the Biére de Garde, but more graham-cracker and fresh bread than caramel and toast. Tripels are big beers that stand up well to heavier foods, but they are also crisp, dry, and highly effervescent to cut through them, a quality that is enhanced by alcohol. Belgian pale ales are lighter and sharper with higher levels of bitterness to punch through the rich foods without filling you up. Caramel and biscuit malt flavors tie in to the turkey skin, the meat, and the trimmings. Both of these beer styles feature herbal and spicy hop flavors to bring out the herbs in the dish, and stone fruit highlights for contrast.
Munich helles is a lighter, but still flavorful option to satisfy your light-beer swilling relatives while still staying true to your inner beer nerd. Like a maltier pilsner, it has a fresh-bread-like malt profile to match the turkey skin and stuffing. Herbal and spicy hops again touch on the savory side of the dish. And it's crisp and bitter enough to slice through even the rich green bean casserole that is a staple on my family's Thanksgiving table. Complement and contrast, it's all there.
Michael's Beer Picks
Biére de Garde
Castelain Blond Biére de Garde: The delicious honey-tinged malt lingers well into the finish. It's balanced by a wet-slate, mineral character and sharp but not overpowering bitterness. Mushroom-earthy notes in the background fit well with the earthy, herbal flavors of the dish.
Jenlain Ambrée: This beer exhibits rich caramel maltiness with undertones of dark fruits and toast. Moderate bitterness and light floral hop notes let the malt shine. This one really ties into the caramelized and toasty flavors in the food, while the figgy fruitiness offers contrast.
De Koninck: An original from Antwerp, De Koninck is delightfully light and drinkable. Caramel and biscuit malt flavors provide a base for herbal hops and a refined level of bitterness. Hints of apricot play over the top. It's got caramel and herbs to complement the dish, with bitterness and fruit providing contrast.
Ommegang BPA: Modeled on classic Belgian roots, but with Cascade aroma hops giving a nod to the American pale ale, this one is light and bright with lively bubbles and assertive but balanced bitterness. Herbal hop flavors and nutty malt will touch on similar flavors in the turkey and trimmings.
La Trappe Tripel: Leaning toward the sweeter side for the style, La Trappe Tripel has a soft, bready malt character with notes of lemon, orange, and pepper. A high level of carbonation accentuates the bitterness and dry finish. The combination of fruity/spicy yeast, sweet malt, and herbal hops provides a hook for everything on the table from savory to sweet.
Maredsous 10: This is a delightful and complex beer; crisp and slightly tart, with pronounced fruity esters of apricot, apple, and pear that are supported by a light, bready, malt sweetness and soft alcohol. It finishes crisp and dry. The amped-up yeasty fruit and subtle tartness work like cranberries to balance the savory food.
Paulaner Original Münchner Hell: A simple beer with subtle depth, it brings lightly-toasted bread, sweetness, herbs, and hints of lemony citrus. It nicely complements the food without demanding attention. That crisp lager finish will cleanse your palate and leave you ready for the next delectable bite.
Stoudt's Gold Lager: This lager offers a similar, subtle balance of sweet malt and spicy European hops. It's a crisp and refreshing counterbalance to the turkey and dressing.
A Little Something Extra
Abita Pecan Harvest: This caramel-sweet amber ale brings an extra, nutty kick from the toasted pecans added to the brew. Turkey and stuffing have a light nuttiness, too, making for a delicious pairing.
Of course, there are other options, too. What beers will you pour at your holiday feast?
About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, the City Pages Hot Dish Blog, and in respected national beer magazines. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint