One year, it took trips to three stores to fully stock up for the big meal. Another year, we spent 45 minutes in the beer department at Wegmans debating what to buy.
Year in and year out, buying beer for Thanksgiving dinner is the toughest purchase I will make for the holiday. My younger sister and I struggle with this each year, looking for the brews that will sustain us through another dinner of the same tired stories, inflamed arguments, and the various other joys that family bring every November.
Part of the problem is heredity; the Paventis are terribly indecisive people. Part of it is preference; she leans into malty beers while I like the hoppier stuff. Our father drinks whatever is in my refrigerator. Ultimately, what gives us trouble is finding beer we can agree on for each stage of the meal.
We’re not alone. You are not alone.
Let's ask some experts for help.
Setting the Parameters
Scan the grocery carts while making your Thanksgiving grocery run. Most will have an 18-pack of Boring Light cans on board or a 12-pack of Path of Least Resistance Lager. More than a few will have the semi-craft beer winter variety pack. Treating beer at Thanksgiving as a one-size fits all proposition is a misguided, though convenient, approach.
“Different beers for each course are great for tailoring great pairings,” said Rich Higgins, a Master Cicerone and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. “It's rarely practical though, as it's hard to get everyone at Thanksgiving to course out their meal and to eat the same stuff at the same time, let alone drink the same stuff at the same time.”
I also like the spicy notes of saisons with a broad range of food.”
So, what to do? If you are Tim Butler, you head right to the flavor of the season. The director of brewing operations for Empire Brewing Company near Syracuse, N.Y., Butler advocates for pumpkin beer on the holiday, saying “I believe a nicely made pumpkin beer goes great at Thanksgiving from start to finish.”
But what about turning your Thanksgiving feast into a carefully curated beer dinner? Christopher Bates, Master Sommelier, winemaker and brewer, looks for varying degrees of acidity to enhance what is on the plate at his F.L.X. Table in New York’s Finger Lakes region, where he will offer a craft beer pairing alongside his wine selections.
“The challenge with pairing beer for me is its inherent lack of acid,” Bates said. “There are sour beers but, in many cases that's too much acid and many people don't like those beers. So, any beer with slight levels of acid I find really helpful, like many saisons. I also like the spicy notes of saisons with a broad range of food, and generally they have enough body for a main course, and enough texture as well.”
So, what’s a beer drinker to do? That’s easy. Print our guide or keep it open on your phone when you make your holiday beer run.
The opening salvo is usually a spread of light snacks: cheese, crackers, vegetables or other finger foods that keep hungry relatives from prowling around the kitchen looking for first tastes.
Bates said he serves champagne or a sauvignon blanc to wine drinkers, but leans towards sours or lagers for the beer drinkers.
“With beer, a traditional gueuze would work great for the beer geeks in the group. For non beer geeks, I think something crisp like a kolsch or pilsner would work well for these little drinking snacks.”
The Thanksgiving table runs the gamut of flavors. Poultry and sage from the turkey complement the starch and dairy flavors in the potatoes. Herbs and citrus from the stuffing against the tart cranberry dressing. And we have not even considered candied yams or anything resembling a vegetable.
This is where a well made saison shines.
“When it comes to the main course,” Bates said, “I'd love something with a little acid, but more grain, and spice and roundness. For those with mules, one of Hill Farmstead’s saisons would be perfect.”
Intensity of flavors is key to Mike Friedle, a Certified Cicerone based in Rochester. “Finding that great beer that isn’t going to overpower a roast turkey, for example, you are going to look to a pilsner or a helles as a great way to start.”
Of course, not everyone roasts their birds in the oven. Thousands of Americans will deep fry their turkeys; some will do so successfully while others will contribute to YouTube’s library of disaster. Friedle suggests “an assertive hop profile like an American pale ale.”
Expert recommended styles: Trappist ale, saison/farmhouse ale, helles lager, pale ale
Expert recommended beers: Orval Trappist Ale, Trappistes Rochefort #6; Saison DuPont, Off Color Brewing Co. Apex Predator, Brewery Ommegang Hennepin, Stillwater Artisanal Ales Cellar Door; Weihenstephaner Original, Surly Brewing Co. Hell Lager; 3 Floyds Brewing Co. Alpha King or Zombie Dust, Great Lakes Brewing Co. Burning River Pale Ale.
The caramelized malts and fudge notes balance the flavor range of your average pie lineup or with cheesecake.”
Dessert presents its own set of challenges.
Turkey sits at the center of the Thanksgiving table with a variety of sides rotating around it, but at dessert you encounter an assortment of pie flavors that diverge from one another: earthy, spicy pumpkin; fruity, sweet apple; tart cherry; rich chocolate; nutty, sticky pecan. It’s as if each pie deserves its own pairing.
Higgins suggests a wee heavy with an apple pie, as the flavors complement, while pumpkin pie deserves a weizenbock. “The wheat's acidity helps elevate that pairing,” he said. “Apple pie already has acidity, so doesn't need it from the beer. Wee heavy offers caramel and toffee which are naturals with apple. weizenbock reinforces the vanilla/clove of the pumpkin pie.”
Friedle diverges from pie and suggests a cheesecake with a Belgian quad. “The caramel flavors of the beer pair really well with the cheesecake filling and crust.”
Bates recommends a barleywine – his preference is J.W. Lee’s Harvest Ale – as it can please on all counts. The caramelized malts and fudge notes balance the flavor range of your average pie lineup or with cheesecake.
He said there is always an old reliable standby that is not nearly as boozy.
“I have never met an honest person who didn't love Lindeman’s Framboise, and it can definitely handle the entire range of dishes with ease.”
Expert recommended styles: Wee Heavy, weizenbock, barleywine, fruited lambic
Expert recommended beers: The Duck-Rabbit Brewery Scotch Ale, Founders Brewing Co. Backwoods Bastard, Dark Horse Brewing Co. Scotty Karate Scotch Ale; Schneider Weisse Tap 6 Unser Aventinus, Weihenstephaner Vitus; Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Bigfoot, Anchor Brewing Co. Old Foghorn, Victory Brewing Co. Old Horizontal; Lindeman’s Framboise.