Every November (October, if you’re a Canadian) brings about the annual family food binge known as Thanksgiving. Invariably it’s filled with odd foods that you don’t necessarily eat any other time of the year. Besides your various feelings about your family and the gathering that the holiday demands, it also presents a challenge for alcohol beverage matching. Sommeliers have long labored under the Herculean task of finding that perfect wine to match the entire meal. Unfortunately, they don’t have the tools in their toolboxes to match the shear flavor craziness that’s going on with just a single vintage. Usually, they have to offer pairings for each dish. But what to do about the true enemy of the sommelier: cranberries. Love them, hate them, they’re almost always on a Thanksgiving table just waiting to ruin your wine pairing. Fortunately, we as denizens of the beer world have a few beers in our arsenal that can join the family at the table to make the whole experience far cooler than your wacky uncle can.
If you’ve read ithinkaboutbeer.com before, you can probably guess what I’m going to trot out for my perfect beer option for the Thanksgiving table: Saisons and their French cousins, Biere de Garde. Truly, this weird beer from the border area of France and Belgium is one of the world’s “Rosetta Stones” for food pairings. Sure, other beers may be better at specific tasks, but Saison is the jack-of-all-trades when it comes to food. Fortunately for you, the beer-consuming, turkey-guzzling public; Biere de Gardes and Saisons are perfect for the traditional Thanksgiving table.
First of all, let’s look at the traditional food options and their various flavor components.
Turkey: The traditional bird of the holiday can be prepared in many ways: brined, roasted, fried, grilled, smoked and more. Also, let’s assume that no matter how it’s prepared you’ve managed the miracle of not overcooking your bird. The bird itself has two different flavor zones: a leaner white meat and richer, fattier dark meat. The use of herbs and spices adds additional earthy qualities to the savory nature of the meat.
Green Beans: For some reason, this perfectly serviceable vegetable seems to make an inordinate amount of Thanksgiving table appearances. Sometimes they’re well prepared in an interesting way that serves to highlight the natural flavor of this earthy, herb-y vegetable. Sometimes it’s slathered in a gravy for the old school “Green Bean Casserole.”
Potatoes: Be they roasted or mashed, scalloped or bashed; these dirt dwelling denizens of starchiness are always included on the table. Whether you’re enjoying the wonderful flavor an artisan potato delicately prepared or simply using the potato as a way to convey extra gravy and/or cheese into your maw, you’ve got a variety of potentially dangerous food/beverage pairing situations.
Stuffing: Stuffing has been my nemesis since early childhood. This pile of soggy bread coated in turkey fat and herbs has been forced on to my plate like clockwork every 4th Thursday of November. Every. Stinking. Year. Now, don’t let my loathing for this traditional turkeyday dish dissuade you from adding it to your table if you like it. Just don’t ask me to eat it. I think that may be the leading reason why I host at my house. Simply so I don’t have to eat stuffing: my house, my rules. Now, assuming you DO like stuffing, the bread-y substance often is tasting of rich turkey juices and a mix of dried fruits, usually raisins, and traditional Thanksgiving herbs like sage and rosemary. I’ve also prepared cabbage stuffing (actually really good), that adds that additional earthy greenness to the previously mentioned flavor mix.
Gravy: No Thanksgiving is complete without some rich turkey gravy made from the giblets to slather over the top of everything. Fatty, savory, herbal, dense and rich; this is the very definition of “umami” (Check out my article about the tongue and flavors to learn more about umami).
Cranberries: This may be my single most favorite dish of the day. I used to love the weird jellied stuff that slithered out of the can when I was a kid. Now I serve a wonderfully fruity cranberry compote filled with dried apricots, fresh oranges and various spices. My innate adoration of sour beers may derive from my childhood love of this super tart Thanksgiving treat. No matter how you look at it, cranberries DELIGHT in destroying wine pairings. They’re the obnoxious kid who kicks your sandcastle over after you’ve labored at it for hours.
Now, how do we deal with this incredibly varied set of flavors, textures and ingredients?
Saisons and Biere de Gardes are the nuclear option for food pairings. But how is this possible? Their #1 tool is their carbonation. Saisons and BdG’s have an extremely high CO2 level compared to the vast majority of other beer styles. And I’m not talking about the harsh bubbles of a soda pop or a mass market lagers. The carbonation of these two beers is simultaneously intense and delicate. Natural bottle conditioning creates a much more nuanced bubble and carbonation level. It allows the beer to cut through the rich fattiness of the various dishes. This does several things for you. First, it lets you enjoy that richness again on the next bite. Second, it allows you to taste the beer. Finally, it keeps your palate refreshed and alive.
Carbonation isn’t their only tool though. The “whatever is available” method of grain selection adds a broad depth of grain flavors to the beer. You’ll often find oats, wheat, rye and more in a saison (besides the requisite barley). The oats can add a viscous mouthfeel that allows the beer to stand up to bigger foods. The wheat gives it a crisp note that keeps everything light. Rye adds some extra spice and funkiness. This mix of grains allows for a wealth of malt flavors to compliment and stand up to your dinner.
To balance the malt, a nice dose of English and Noble hops add a spicy bitter finish to keep everything crisp and balanced. What the carbonation starts, the hops finish. The herbal, floral, spicy nature of European hops also dances in to flirt with the various herbs and spices of the meal. Together, you get a medley of flavors and aromas. Just in case all that malt and hops didn’t give you enough flavor, how about we throw in the most important flavor element of a Saison: yeast.
Like most Belgian beers, yeast is the true star of the show. The esters and phenols produced by the yeast, usually because fermentation takes place at higher than standard temperatures, create an intense bouquet of aromas that make Saison the food matching machine that it is. The estery citrus and fruit tones match well with the cranberry compote. The spicy, earthy phenols will match with the cinnamon and clove in the compote. Sometimes you even get some nice herbal tones that will match up with nearly the entire flavor palate of your Thanksgiving dinner. The other function of yeast is to eat the sugars in the wort. And boy does saison yeast ever eat that sugar. Saisons should be dry. The lack of heavy residual sweetness helps to keep all the flavors of the beer in balance. It also keeps the beer from getting heavy on your palate, and trust me, with all the intensely heavy foods on your thanksgiving table, you’ll want your beer to stay light on the tongue.
Now that I’ve outlined why saisons and biere de gardes are ideal for your dinner table on Thanksgiving, I’ll give you a few suggestions.
Saison Dupont is available nationally and is the standard bearer for the Saison style. Brasserie Dupont is probably the world’s most famous producer of Saisons, and with good reason. The outstanding mix of flavors will work well with just about anything you can put on your family table. If you buy a few bottles of this beer, you’ll have a refreshing, flavorful beer that will last the entire meal without causing everyone to get overly drunk at a modest but ample 6.5% ABV.
Saison d’Erpe-Mere is another outstanding Belgian Saison. This one is brewed in the Flemish portion, unusual for the traditionally French speaking style. If you find this beer, it’s a bit more rare than the Dupont, grab it. It’ll become a rare but welcome guest at your family gathering.
Castelain Biere de Garde is the classic French Biere de Garde. With pretty decent distribution nation wide, this should be one of the easier imported versions to find. Big in flavor, but balanced with that great carbonation, this beer would be the ideal French guest to invite to your holiday banquet.
I do realize that I have an intense love of Saisons. If you don’t, first, you should look in the mirror and have a serious soul searching session. If you’re still not wanting a saison with your Thanksgiving dinner, I would suggest an “Oktoberfest” or Marzen beer or a dunkel lager. These darker German lagers have enough malt character to stand up to a good deal of your meal. The solid carbonation and slight hop character will also go a long way to helping you and your meal meet in the middle.
Now comes the dessert! I’ve been to Thanksgiving at many homes over the years and the one thing they have in common is a fine selection of pies to turn a turkey coma into a full on belly-buster of a day. The three most common I’ve seen are: Pumpkin, Pecan, and Apple. Again, your easy button on beer will lead you to Imperial Stout. You’d think that such a powerful and robust beer would dwarf or clash with these sweet confections. However, Imperial Stout is just what the doctor ordered.
Samuel Smith Imperial Stout has been available in the US for quite some time. Remind yourself why this brewery is so good and get some for the dessert course. At only 7% ABV, it will allow you plenty of continued sipping enjoyment without totally busting your liver for the day. The dried fruit notes will blend well with all three pies while the bitter espresso and chocolate notes will provide a nice contrast to the rich sweetness. What about the whipped cream? Well, this will provide a nice sweet/bitter contrast that will make the combination really pop.
Another great option is the newly released Sierra Nevada Narwhal Imperial Stout. This beer is almost austerely dry. It certainly won’t give you an overload of sweet while you’re enjoying your desserts. The powerfully roasty bitter notes will slice through the rich sweetness of whichever pie your eating to refresh and satisfy you much like a cup of espresso.
While Imperial Stouts may be the ideal option, they may not be your glass of beer. Well, another great option is any of the basic pumpkin beers still lingering around. Really, pumpkin beers are more based on the flavor of “pumpkin” spices than the rather bland gourd. The sweet, spicy nature of these spiced beers will go a long way to matching your dessert options. If you can find it, Elysian Night Owl is a great choice.
What foods are you eating for Thanksgiving? Need a suggestion to match with it? What beers are going to be on your table? Please join the conversation and comment below! And, Happy Holidays from ithinkaboutbeer.com
(I’ll be posting reviews for all of my suggestions in the next few days.)