Cider vs. Beer: A Thanksgiving Battle
- Best beers: La Choulette Les Sans Culottes, Brooklyn Brewery Local Two
- Best ciders: Albemarle Old Virginia Winesap, Eve's Cidery Blackthorn Hollow Dry
- With dessert: Eden Ice Cider Northern Spy
- Pricey pie pick: Sam Adams Utopias
In the wake of Serious Drinks Editor Maggie Hoffman's triumphant wine vs. beer Thanksgiving battle, assembling a comparable cider vs. beer dinner seemed daunting. I can't brine a turkey like Kenji, pickle cranberries like Marisa, or even whip up a pumpkin pie on a weeknight like Lauren. During the holiday season, I'm a boozy man in a foodie world. So, in lieu of a feast akin to Maggie's, I did what any native New Yorker with a 60 hour work week would do. I picked up the phone, wrangled the best tipplers in town and headed straight for America's Thanksgiving in a bag...Boston Market.
Boston Market doesn't serve the perfect Thanksgiving meal. The yams are too sweet, the turkey's dry and lifeless, and the stuffing tastes more like wet bread than the sausage-laden goodness that my Grandma turns out every year. But still, the essence of Thanksgiving flavor was there, and that was enough to help us work though a dozen-odd ciders and beers to find the best options for your Thanksgiving table.
A Few Thanksgiving Beer & Cider Tips
The wall of craft beers and ciders at your local liquor store can seem daunting at first. But with a few guidelines, choosing cider and beer for Thanksgiving can be exciting rather than stressful. Here is our cheat sheet to help you choose the best options.
Play it safe and buy stuff you you like.
Preparing dinner for a dozen friends and family is not the time to break out new, untested recipes. The same holds true for drinks. Reach for what you know works. Share your latest discovery with your guests and they will share your excitement over a well made beer or cider. And if you do get adventurous, always have a few tried and true bottles as backup.
You need some body to be somebody.
Palate cleansing drinks such as Belgian saisons and dry ciders are classic food pairings but they often fail against the richness of a Thanksgiving feast. Pop these bottles before your meal, preferably with oyster or a cheese course. When it comes to the main event, chose something more substantial, with richer body and/or residual sugar. The exception to this rule is tart, tannic ciders which can both cut rich foods and cleanse the palate. Consider trying some of each to see what you like best.
Let the food shine.
Spiced farmhouse ales can complement the fall flavors of Thanksgiving—but look for brews that tasty spicy rather than serving assertive spice-added options that might clash with your meal.
With Cider, Keep it Bright
Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity to dive into the world of cider. Apples are quintessentially fall and ciders has a long history with these harvest flavors. Plus, a few bottles of cider can be a conversation starter to break up the usual banter between courses. David Flaherty, Beer & Spirits Director at Hearth & Terroir in New York, tells us:
In addition to the ubiquitous turkey on the table (and the hordes of relatives eyeing it like savages), if one wants to truly give thanks for our country's bounty, then cider must be on the table. You can't get more American than that. Hard apple cider was America's favorite drink of yore, and since Benjamin Franklin will not be able to attend your gathering (he will be dining with Justin Bieber), pour your mama a tankard of farmstead cider and tell her you love her. It's the proper thing to do".
When picking a cider for your feast, look for something with vibrant acidity. Our clear favorite of the night was the Old Virginia Winesap from Albemarle CiderWorks in Virginia. This dry cider was tart enough to both complement the bird and cut through even the sweetest candied yams. Blackthorn Hollow Dry, a new fall release from Eve's Cidery, paired equally well, offering similar acidity and an angular, but uplifting finish.
Another option is to veer toward the sweeter side of the spectrum. Also successful was bRosé, a blueberry cider from Vermont upstart Citizen Cider. While a bit awkward around our gravy and meat, the added sweetness held up well with starchy sides while the blueberry character found favor with the cranberry sauce.
Roasty, Nutty Beers Rule the Day
The peppery spice and effervescence of our first beer, the widely-available Saison DuPont, set the bar high for our beer pairings. And while this benchmark saison shines with simply prepared vegetables, it was the nuttier, roasty beers that ruled the day with a Thanksgiving plate piled high.
The walnut aroma of La Choulette's Les Sans Culottes, a French Bière de Garde, worked as well with mashed potatoes as it did with turkey. Closer to home, Brooklyn Brewery's Local Two brought a bit more malt to the table which, according to Serious Drinker Jonathan Moxey, "is substantial enough to stand up to the heartier harvest flavors without overpowering the dishes."
Less successful were the bitter beers of the night. Even mildly hopped beers, such as Stillwater's Autumnal clashed with the richness of the meal. Similarly, strongly spiced beers—such as the Allagash White, worked with some of the dishes but not others. In general, assertively hopped or spiced beers can do wonders with specific foods but are difficult to pair with a wide range of Thanksgiving flavors. So stick with the nuttier, less-hopped and less-spiced options.
Sizing up the Sweet Stuff
When it came to the end of the meal, we went big on both the beers and the ciders. The boozy quality of my AEppelTreow Pommeaux stood better on its own, but didn't play nicely with pie. The sweetly-tart Northern Spy from Eden Ice Cider, however, was decadent without overpowering other flavors. Two years later, it still remains my top choice for an Thanksgiving dessert cider.
The dessert star, however, was Sam Adam's Utopias. At $190 a bottle, 29% alcohol, and 0% carbonation, Utopias is always a topic of conversation in the craft beer world. This Rolls Royce of beers drinks more like a cognac than a pale ale and should be savored as such. And while Utopias is a total luxury, opening one for Thanksgiving does allow you to enjoy it throughout the holiday season and well into the winter with your closest friends and family.
Utopias aside, part of the fun of pairing beer and cider with Thanksgiving is that you can afford to explore, buy a few different bottles and see what ends up empty first. Have you found any Turkey day beer and cider favorites? Recommend them in the comments section below.
Still not sure what to drink on Thanksgiving? Check out our page full of wine, beer, cider, and cocktail picks for the holiday!
About the author: Christopher Lehault is a Brooklyn based homebrewer, cider evangelist and craft beer documentarian. When not viewing the world through the bottom of his glass, he's looking at it through his lens at idrunkthat.com. Follow his cider adventures on twitter at @bittersharp.
Sam Adams Utopias and and Eve's Cidery Blackthorn Hollow Dry were provided as samples for review consideration. All other bottles were lovingly donated from our home collections in the name of science.