Thanksgiving: it's a time for family and friends to get together and eat way too damn much—not a time for overwrought beer pairings with elaborate, coordinated presentations. After all, there's no one beverage that's going to perfectly match every item on your plate and you won't want a separate glass for your turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. With all that stemware in front of you, you wouldn't be able to see your loved ones. But the beer you choose to serve is still important—as with any good celebration, you've gotta have good hooch.
For Thanksgiving, you'll want an elegant bottle to share amongst your tablemates that won't clash with any of the food on the table.
Here's what I'd recommend with dinner:
On your Thanksgiving dinner plate, you'll have serious diversity in flavors, textures, temperatures and weights. This makes it tricky to pick a single beer to succeed with everything you consume. So it's best to find a common characteristic across each menu item and go from there.
In the case of Thanksgiving dinner, that commonality lies in the oven. All the best stuff on the Thanksgiving table comes from there: turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, pies, you name it. Food cooked in the oven generally undergoes browning and caramelization—just like the darker malts used to create amber and brown-colored beers do when they are kilned and prepared for brewing. The parallel flavors created by these shared processes offer an easy connection between darker malty beer and oven-roasted food. You'll want some contrasting flavor elements to keep things interesting, but this narrows the field to a few beer styles.
Bière de Garde
Bière de garde is the style I see most frequently recommended as a versatile Thanksgiving beer and I can't say I disagree. Generally speaking, these beers are assertive enough in alcohol and carbonation to stand up to richness but subtle enough in flavor to avoid dominating the more delicate Thanksgiving dishes. The amber (or "ambrée") versions of the style commonly sport sport bready, toasty and caramelly malt flavor alongside fruity and spicy yeast character—a perfect fit for the autumnal flavors of the Turkey Day plate.
My issue with the near-universal recommendation of bière de garde is that commercial examples display a huge range in flavors, perceived hop bitterness, and levels of carbonation and alcohol. Some will naturally be much better than others for your celebration.
Beers to try:
Named for a character in Les Misérables, Brasserie St. Sylvestre's Gavroche is a versatile food beer focused on the interplay between caramelly, toasty malt flavor and apple-like esters. Tasty stuff available in a beautiful 750mL bottle.
It may be a bit of a stretch to call this a bière de garde in the strictest sense, but Brasserie Dupont's Bière de Beloeil is fantastic with Thanksgiving food. It was a hit when I brought it to last year's beer vs. wine Thanksgiving battle, and it will be a hit for you too.
Belgian-style dubbels make a statement at the dinner table. Traditionally bottled in elegant cork-and-cage finished 750mL vessels, these look like beers worthy of celebration. Thankfully, they drink pretty darn well in these settings too. High in carbonation, these beers lift the mouth-coating richness of gravy and dairy-laden mashed potatoes from the palate. Flavor-wise, the dubbel sports a one-two punch of dense dark fruit and peppery, clove-like phenol character that complements sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and the bird itself.
Look for a bottle that de-emphasizes alcoholic intensity without tasting overly sweet. Aggressively alcoholic beers will taste astringent and harsh among the less-rich items on your plate and overly sweet beers will taste cloying in comparison to more savory dishes.
Beers to try:
At less than $10 per bottle, Ommegang Abbey Ale is a good choice for parties with a lot of guests. It is rich and complex without being too sweet and comes in a beautiful 750ml bottle.
Brasserie Dupont Moinette Brune is another great value around $10 with similar characteristics. This bottle is slightly sweeter and a bit fruitier, but just as delicious.
The Märzen and Oktoberfest styles are functionally identical and are characterized by toasty malt dominance. Moderate in alcohol and low in bitterness, these beers are an ultra-safe but satisfying play for your Thanksgiving table—there's nothing here to throw your food out of balance, great examples can be had for cheap, and your guests will probably be at least somewhat familiar with beers of this style already. Dunkel lagers and drier doppelbocks feature a similarly malt-forward flavor and will function in quite the same way.
Beers to try:
Samuel Adams' Octoberfest is easy to find in November and has holiday-appropriate patriotic branding to boot. It's an inexpensive, decent example of the style but its packaging lacks the classy table aesthetics we're looking for here. Still, not a bad choice. When it comes to the liquid, I prefer examples by Ayinger and Hacker-Pschorr, which are similarly named Oktober Fest-Märzen and Oktoberfest Märzen, respectively. These bottles class it up a bit and are both available in 500ml formats for sharing.
Scotch ales are all about smooth, caramelized malt character. Red grape, toffee, and peat smoke flavors are par for the course here, offering savory and sweet complements to your plate. These beers carry some heft, weighing in with enough ABV (think 6-9%ish) to hang with the richer dishes. They can be great with dessert too, but reserve that for sweeter examples.
Beers to try:
I like Traquair's Jacobite and House Ale with dinner and Cigar City's Big Sound Scotch Ale with dessert.
Once a style derided as a boring one by the craft beer community, brown ales have expanded far beyond the scope of one-dimensional Newcastle facsimiles. You'll find toasty, roasty, nutty and chocolatey flavors packed into your average brown ale and many examples (especially the American-brewed ones) feature a significant hop profile as well. Expect a balanced beverage that will fit in comfortably with everything on your dinner plate.
Beers to try:
Alesmith's Nut Brown Ale is a fantastic straight-forward brown ale in a 22 ounce bottle for sharing, while Dogfish Head's Indian Brown Ale offers a more modern approach, hybridizing IPA, Scotch Ale and American brown ale.
Save a little room for pie? Of course you did.
Pairing Beer with Thanksgiving Pies
Pairing beer and dessert can be a difficult task, but I covered a few of the basics in this recent guide. Thanksgiving dessert pairing presents another challenge of diversity. You're likely to encounter pecan, apple, and pumpkin pies, sometimes all on your plate at once. Sweetness levels aside, the pile of desserts you amass may be at once spicy, tart, rich, bright, and weighty.
To accommodate all, find yourself a sweet-leaning English-style barleywine like the J.W. Lees Harvest series. These beers offer a deep malt complexity that works really well with pie. Expect a full range of caramel, toffee, and dark fruit character from these beers. Oxidative sherry, port and leather may be present as well—all welcome complements to pecan, pumpkin, and apple pie.
If you can find it, a good milk stout (aka sweet stout) will offer an appropriately-sweet chocolatey counterpoint to your pecan and pumpkin pies. It's a bit over the top, but Samuel Smith's Organic Chocolate Stout is just what you're looking for with a pairing like this. On its own, it overwhelms with sweet chocolate flavor, but with pecan and pumpkin pies, it tastes more balanced, offering a satisfying back and forth between the sweets and the beer.
Sticking to apple pie and want to try something different? Sweeter dunkelweizens, like Weihenstephan's Hefeweissbier Dunkel, are great with less-sweet apple pies. Packed with banana, raisin and nut flavor with a zippy clove-like yeast character, these fit right in with the cinnamon-apple flavor of apple pie.
About the author: Mike Reis is a Certified Cicerone. Follow him on Twitter @beerspeaks or find him behind a pint near you.