Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday. Hands down. That’s partly because it is the most under-appreciated and misunderstood of all the celebrations yearlong, falling as it does somewhere between the great vacation migration of Labor Day, Halloween’s rising tsunami of sweets, and the madness of the so-called “holiday shopping season.” It’s certainly the most likable of the American holidays, at least to me. There is no requisite pomposity and pyrotechnics, as with the 4th and President’s Days; to prove your patriotism, all you have to do is take a seat at the table. Nor is its significance lost in the clamor of some other ritual, as is the case with Memorial Day, which has become better known as the first day that the community pool opens, rather than a day of remembrance for all things military. Nor is it a convenient excuse to buy a new car. No, Thanksgiving is humble, relatively quiet (depending on the behavior of your relatives), has no headache-inducing musical “soundtrack” (my kids have already begun singing carols, their mouths still stuffed full of candy corn and pumpkin seeds), and is unburdened by the pressure of gift-giving. The only thing one gives at this time of the year, in fact, is thanks.
I also have an affinity for Thanksgiving because no other holiday is so hedonistically focused on food and drink: choosing what to eat — not what to buy, what to wear, etc. — is the central conundrum. To give thanks is “a matter of joy,” as The Beer Hunter himself, Brit Michael Jackson, once wrote. And what better way to experience that fleeting gift than by sitting around a table with family and friends, taking the time (a whole day, if you’re lucky) to meet or get reacquainted, to reminisce, to relax, and to enjoy “both the ritual and effect of a shared glass” and a hearty meal.
I said “misunderstood” at the beginning because few people know the true story of the real Thanksgiving. Or, I should say, there is no one definitive story of the event, and much of what we know about the Pilgrims and their legacy is based more on fantasy and mythology than cold-hard facts — how more American can you get? One of the main misconceptions about the holiday involves how the Pilgrims landed where they did. And that story relates to another misconception about the day: what to drink with this complex mishmash of multiple, often contradictory foods and flavors.
It turns out that the Pilgrims made landfall not on some divinely chosen shoreline, but as soon as, and wherever, was most convenient because, according to their own diaries, “our victuals [were] much spent, especially our beer.” In other words, they chose to disembark on what came to be known as (cue choir of angels) Plymouth Rock simply because they, like so many harried, weary roadtrippers since, had run out of pale ale and sandwiches. And, with winter (and boredom, among other ills) coming on, they likely set out immediately to bake some bread, cure some meat, and brew more beer. The latter is not such a daunting task, as any home-brewer can attest. Using either what remained of the grains brought onboard or whatever they could find on hand (Captain James Cook reportedly made beer with spruce sap when he landed in New Zealand), and a few simple pots and containers, the ship’s cook could brew a crude beer that would be drinkable in a few short weeks. On the other hand, winemaking though not as complex a process requires a key ingredient that that first settlers probably did not possess– grapes. So, I think it can safely be said that, when sitting down for perhaps this country’s first and most famous multicultural meal a year or so later, the Pilgrims washed down their still much-depleted victuals with beer.
In a sense, our forebears had no choice for filling their tankards on turkey day, but you do. Sure, there are as many wine varieties available as there are places in the world that grow grapes, and many more to be had by combining juices. As a result, serving fine wine with a fancy meal like the one on Thanksgiving Day is not only convenient and affordable these days, it also still seems proper and elegant. After all, I don’t recall seeing anyone in my family, for generations, drink anything else at the table, except water. But I would argue that beer is the proper beverage here — not only does it share the American roots of the meal but it also is more versatile than wine and goes with every course, every bit of food that you can spoon onto your plate.
The traditional Thanksgiving menu is a challenging hodgepodge of flavors and textures that can panic any gourmet cook (“You want me to put marshmallows on my organic yams pan-roasted in virgin olive oil and dried rosemary?!”) and confound even the most talented gourmand. All taste areas of the tongue are called into use, often at the same time — sweet (from corn pudding to pumpkin pie), sour (my family serves sauerkraut), salty (cured hams, potatoes and gravy), bitter (turnips and cranberries), rich (creamed onions or spinach), herbal (stuffing), etc. Not to mention the bird itself, which can range in flavor from juicy and earthy (dark meat), to mild and dry (white meat), to crispy and caramelized (either meat with skin).
You need something that will bring all these disparate flavors together, to anchor the match-ups, and as any sommelier will admit, no one wine will do that. He or she will tell you to pick a few types, both red and white, and let the drinkers decide. Because wine is made from a single ingredient, its taste, though often quite complex and wonderful, is more narrowly defined and its compatibility with a host of foods is limited. Beer, on the other hand, is made from a mix of different ingredients and offers wide-ranging and forgiving flavor and aroma combinations; it also provides the cleansing and refreshing qualities of carbonation. It’s a natural accompaniment, then, to the troublesome turkey dinner. So, unless you plan to eat only one part of your meal at a time, sipping its vinic counterpart alongside, you should opt instead for a glass of beer.
Not surprising, opinions vary about which kind of beer goes best with the meal. As with wine, there is a vast range of beer choices on the market, and some of the decision-making will depend on your particular tastes. I can’t (and won’t) tell you exactly what to serve, but I can offer the following tasting guide to help. The only thing I can tell you for certain is that, no matter which beers you pick, you really can’t go wrong.
[It should also be pointed out that the three main points of departure for the Pilgrims — Leiden, in the Netherlands, London, and Plymouth, England — are traditionally associated with the creation and distillation of gin, which was commonly used for medicinal purposes on long sea voyages, along with a healthy dose of lemon or lime (and even vermouth) for fighting scurvy. Therefore, beginning with a gin-based cocktail, such as a gimlet, Martini, or cosmopolitan (with cranberry juice), might make Miles Standish proud.]
Before Dinner: If you start the meal in the early afternoon, as my family does, by stuffing ourselves with bready things, nuts, and the like, the way the cook stuffs the bird, then I would recommend a dry, light-bodied pilsner or lager, such as Pilsner Urquell, Bitburger, or Victory’s Prima Pils, or a Belgian-style pale ale, like Duvel or Orval. These beers are fizzy and refreshing and will kickstart the taste buds. If you add in some heavier hors d’oeuvres, like Brie or a rich cheddar cheese, or a creamy onion dip with chips (guilty!), then you might want to switch to a beer with a bit more hop bitterness and malty heft, like a pale ale (Anchor Liberty Ale is nice, as well as Angler’s Pale Ale), which balance out the flavors but won’t overwhelm your palate. Serving oysters? Try a stout, such as Guinness or Beamish, or a native porter, such as Yuengling — it’s an amazing marriage of dry, tangy tastes.
During Dinner: According to Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery and author of the indispensable The Brewmaster’s Table, biere de garde, a beer with a strong herbal component indigenous to France, “is brilliant with turkey.” I couldn’t agree more, and my dinner-table companions who’ve tried it concur. The aromatic quality of biere de garde (“beer for keeping”), which is sold in champagne-like bottles, perfectly matches all the various and savory qualities of the traditional meal, from the seasonings on the crunchy browned skin to the bouquet of vegetable flavors in the stuffing and sides to the poultry and game essences in the meat, and makes everything taste juicy. Best of all, as Oliver points out, “the carbonation lifts everything, so you don’t realize you are eating so much.” Biere de garde also pairs well with pungent, strong-flavored cheeses, so get an extra bottle and pop it early if that’s what you are serving beforehand. For the authentic French quaff, try Castelain or 3 Monts Flanders Golden Ale. But if you want to stick with the American theme, you’ll be equally happy with Maine-based Allagash’s Grand Cru or Ommegang Rare Vos, which is brewed in Cooperstown, another American touchstone.
Also, if you want, just stick to the beers you started before dinner (see what I mean about versatility?), like the lagers and pilsners, which are light and often a little spicy and can serve as a palate cleanser between bites. Pale ales also mix well with the rich and various flavors, as do brown ales (try Colorado-based Tommyknocker’s Maple Nut Brown Ale or Nut Brown Ale from Arcadia Brewing Company). If you are serving ham instead of turkey, pour a doppelbock (Salvator, from Paulaner, in Munich, is a classic), which is dry and nutty and pairs well with the sweet, salty flavors in the meat, potatoes, and gravy. And what about the leftover turkey? Why not make a sandwich, with cranberry sauce and stuffing (bread on bread!), and pair it with a leftover, slightly sweet Oktoberfest beer from the back of the fridge.
(For those of you who are serving an alternative to the meat in the meal, do not despair. All of the above recommendations will work well, especially since ingredients such as tofu tend to mimic and absorb the flavors around them. You could even go with an eco-friendly beer, like the Common Ale from Orlio, which is part of a line of organic brews from Magic Hat, to round out your non-traditional repast.)
After Dinner: Nothing goes better after a filling, rich, roast turkey dinner than a filling, rich, and sweet dessert, like chocolate cream pie (at least in my house). And there’s no better accompaniment to a hefty slice than a rich, flavorful stout. Try a big one, such as Brooklyn’s Black Chocolate or Stone’s Imperial Russian, both of which are dry, mildly sweet, and won’t overpower the flavors of the pie. If you like pumpkin or pecan pies (and who doesn’t?), pick a pack of pumpkin ales or one of the spiced winter ales hitting the market, such as Anderson Valley’s Winter Solstice. Old ales — Lancaster Brewing’s Winter Warmer, for instance — are a nice post-meal treat, too.
Or, if you are too full (even for “a wafer-thin mint“) but still want something sweet and strong, though without all the carbonation — beer is still your answer. Try a Barleywine-style ale, such as Dogfish Head Immort Ale or Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot, which you can decant into a snifter and sip and enjoy by the fire, like brandy.
So, there you have it, my friends. I say, forego the commonly recommended grape-flavored libations in favor of something uncommonly and traditionally American with your Thanksgiving meal. About the only thing you need the wine for is the glasses — you’ll enjoy the beer better if you don’t drink it straight from the bottle. As Ben Franklin, one of the Yankee-Doodlist of our forefathers and who preferred the feisty native turkey as the national symbol, rather than the bald eagle (a “bird of bad moral character”), once said, “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” And that’s something for which we can all be thankful.