Thanksgiving Dinner – What To Drink With It?

In a few weeks, shoppers will see bottles of this invading their local supermarket and liquor store shelves:

This, as many will recognize, is the famed Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, otherwise known as THE Thanksgiving Wine. Every year in mid-November, people buy cases and cases of this stuff, for the purpose of consuming with their turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. I don’t know how or why this tradition came into being, but it’s unstoppable. For those who don’t know, it’s an inexpensive, young, and fruity wine with little to no tannin or structure. Not a wine to age for any length of time, it’s for drinking as soon as possible. As one might expect, I’m not crazy about it. Fruit-forward wines are fine with me, but I find this one very thin and one-note. I usually do not like thin, runny red wines of any description, and beyond that, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how this is supposed to be the “killer pairing” for Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe I can see an affinity with the typical quivering mass of cranberry sauce with the ridges from the can, but that’s about it.

Tired of the above and looking for a better alternative? I’m here to help. Why not try….beer? Beer has what it takes to elegantly complement the entirety of any harvest-time feast – turkey, stuffing, potatoes, beans, squash, etc. – even the pumpkin pie. Plus, a bottle of world-class beer costs about as much, or even less than, that bottle of decidedly NOT world-class Beaujolais Nouveau. Even better, quite a few beer styles will be up to the task – it’s pretty difficult to screw up. Here are some suggestions and general guidelines:

Yes, plain old pilsner. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but it wouldn’t be bad, either, cutting through gravy and heavy stuffing with palate-refreshing carbonation, while not overwhelming delicate white turkey meat. Warsteiner, Victory Prima Pils, Radeberger – these will all work just fine.

Brown Ale
Another choice that isn’t all that sexy, but is highly effective. These feature a caramelized, slight roasty malt character, perfect for tying into crisp turkey skin, gravy, and those browned bits of stuffing. Try to find brown ales that aren’t blatantly hoppy – the “India Brown Ale” substyle is not what you want for this purpose. Again, you don’t want your beer to obliterate this meal with waves of hop bitterness. This pairing is supposed to result in a match, not a rout. Look for beers like Brooklyn Brown, Sierra Nevada Tumbler, Cigar City Maduro Brown, Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown, Rogue Hazelnut Brown, Avery Ellie’s Brown…the list goes on and on.

This would be my first choice. Pairing with a saison means forgoing the caramelized flavors inherent in a brown ale, but introducing more complex fruit/herbal/spice flavors, as well as unparalleled palate-refreshing cutting power. What’s the best part of Thanksgiving dinner? The stuffing! Saison finds affinities with the herbal, salty stuffing, and slices through heavy gravy and mashed potatoes, leaving you ready for the next bite. Perfect. The obvious two to look for are Saison Dupont and Ommegang Hennepin.

Biere de Garde
An indigenous French farmhouse ale, biere de garde isn’t as spicy or fruity as saison, and adds back some toasted malt character. They can also show a yeasty, rustic “cellar” character that really seems to bring out the latent gaminess in that dull old Butterball turkey your mom makes. Biere de garde makes turkey taste better! For what it’s worth (and it’s worth a lot to me, because he is a beer-food pairing grand master), Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery fame thinks biere de garde is the ultimate Thanksgiving beer. I still like saison a little better, but I have enjoyed many a BdG with turkey. The classic is Castelain Blonde Biere de Garde, and St. Amand French Country Ale is very good as well, also from Castelain. If you can find it, Russian River’s “Biere de Sonoma,” Perdition, is an outstanding example of the style, with some American flair.

Dessert – English Barleywine
Be careful here. Note that I said “English” barleywine. American-style barleywines tend to be big, brash, and tongue-scrapingly hoppy. If you decide to pair a fresh Great Divide Old Ruffian or Stone Old Guardian with your pumpkin pie, I can’t be held responsible for the ensuing disaster. I told you, English barleywine. These are big and boozy as well, but they omit the mass quantities of extremely bitter, citric/piney American hops. Sweeter on the whole, with more of a round flavor – earth, tobacco, rum, fruitcake, etc. – they pair quite well with a big slice of pumpkin pie. The best examples come in small bottles and are on the expensive side, but they are worth it for a one-time indulgence. Look for JW Lee’s Vintage Harvest Ale. At specialty beer stores, you might find versions of this in varying “vintages,” aged in various wooden vessels that previously held spirits or wine – no matter how old they are, go ahead and buy. Aged, this beer is fantastic. If you can’t find JW Lee’s, no problem, other barleywines will work, as long as they aren’t heavily hopped. Try Horn Dog from Flying Dog, Weyerbacher’s Blithering Idiot, Ridgeway Criminally Bad Elf, or Dogfish Head Immort Ale. These are just a few examples, ask the employees at your local store for more suggestions. 

I am confident that if you follow these general guidelines, you’ll easily outperform Beaujolais Nouveau at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Leftover Oktoberfests, dunkels, porters, Belgian pales, pumpkin ales – these will be pretty good too. As I said – with beer pairings, it’s hard to screw up too badly. Have fun with it!

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