November is here. Time, again, for the Turkey Question.
Wine folks might debate it amongst themselves, but they usually have a simple answer—pinot noir or chardonnay, for example. Meanwhile, beer geeks have a rep for giving people answers that are, like many of their beards and the rest of this post, too long.
So if you want the simple answer, here it is: Pick something malty, a bit sweet, and not too bitter. Think bocks or märzens, brown ales, dubbels and tripels.
You don’t want a bland beer but you also don’t want anything too rich or intense (save that imperial stout for pumpkin pie and IPA for leftover turkey sandwiches). Residual sweetness contrasts and highlights that beautiful savory umami of a properly roasted bird (sweetness also is welcome if that bird winds up too dry). Meanwhile, malt can find its Maillard-reaction friend in the caramelization of the crispy skin.
What to spend? Splurge if you want; it’s a festive occasion. But there’s a lot to be said for going with a moderately priced gem purchased in some quantity, kept cool on the back porch for guests to access at will. Thanksgiving, above all, is a time for companionship and food. I don’t want beer in the driver’s seat, and it shouldn’t be a distraction—even if I take private moments to appreciate it.
A note on etiquette, a topic on which I should not be advising anyone: If you’re pouring, you might mention—once or twice but not over and over—that this beer supposed to go well with the turkey. Personally I like a shrug—“I don’t know guys, you tell me”—to invite my guests to make up their own minds. Beer pairing is not real magic, it’s more like sleight of hand: The trick is to get people to stop and tune in to their senses, to enjoy the flavors. Our lives are short; it’s astounding how often we forget to slow down and pay attention to sensual pleasures.
Alternatively, clear your throat and bring it up anytime someone starts to talk politics.
But What Do the Real Experts Say?
There is plenty of research out there on the physiology of taste—and it’s fascinating—but none of it will tell you which beer to drink with your turkey. What you can consult, besides your own experience, is years of opinions from writers who have put an unhealthy amount of thought into these questions. Let’s not ignore them.
Notably, there is some actual research happening on beer-food pairing. The Brewers Association’s Beer and Food Working Group is trying to collect as much reliable data as possible to provide more authoritative answers to the questions, “What should I eat/drink with that?” The BA’s Craft Beer Program Director Julia Herz’s working group—which also includes Cicerone founder Ray Daniels and Tasting Beer author Randy Mosher, among others—has prioritized something they call “crowdtasting.” (Here is a PDF of their interesting presentation at the most recent Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia.)
An early “crowdtasting” study found that savory/umami taste went best with brown ale, when compared to stout, hefeweizen and IPA. But they’re in the early stages of working out their method and how best to collect more data.
Herz and Gwen Conley of Lost Abbey co-wrote last year’s Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide from the Pairing Pros. Besides all the practical stuff it also delves into some of the geekier science behind it. When it comes to turkey, they recommend Belgian tripel or pale strong ale. (Classic examples of these would include Westmalle Tripel and Duvel, respectively.)
“The tripel’s pilsner malt flavors match the white meat flavor of turkey beautifully. These beers’ white fruit esters help keep your palate fresh during the meal, and the high carbonation cleanses your palate for the next bite of rich potatoes and gravy.”
Conley elaborated for me in an email: “If you are unsure what is being served for sure at the dinner, I am a big fan of tripels and bière de gardes with all the varieties of side dishes. The carbonation in both these styles cuts through without overwhelming whatever the dish might be for the most part, and the yeast that are used usually impart a tad bit of sweet esters.”
She added that she prefers “home run pairings” by matching a different beer to each dish. (Sounds like a hoot, but I reckon that’s more than most Thanksgiving hosts want to manage.)
There are a few more beer-food pairing books than there used to be, but the undisputed classic of the genre is Garrett Oliver’s Brewmaster’s Table. His recs from the handy cheat sheet in back: “bière de garde, dunkel, dubbel, Oktoberfest märzen, American amber lager.”
Oliver organizes the bulk of the book by beer style, and he doesn’t get serious about talking turkey until the section on French bière de garde: “The French have yet to discover this food match, so let me be the one to tell you—bière de garde is brilliant with turkey. And not just with turkey—it is also brilliant with turnips, the stuffing, the cranberry sauce, the potatoes, the whole darned thing. Bière de garde is the Thanksgiving beer.”
To narrow things down, Oliver says “the very best beer to match the Thanksgiving turkey and all the trimmings” is Castelain Ch’Ti Blonde, often known in the U.S. market as simply Castelain.
A couple of other popular books that discuss pairings, Mosher’s Tasting Beer and Jeff Alworth’s Beer Bible, don’t get specific enough to recommend roast turkey pairings—but both suggest maltier beers with roast meat and poultry (which might be the nearest thing beer has to wine’s “red with meat, white with fish.”)
Lucy Saunders’ 2007 cookbook Best of American Beer & Food includes a roast turkey recipe, accompanied by a bacon-laced bread pudding made with the Samuel Adams spiced holiday beer, Old Fezziwig. Her recommended pairing is a “winter strong ale.”
Stephen Beaumont has been writing about beer and food longer than most. His 1997 Brewpub Cookbook makes no mention of turkey, sadly, but it does suggest German dunkel for roast chicken. So I wrote to him and asked if he had a ready answer to The Turkey Question.
His response cut across the grain, so to speak: “Gueuze. Nothing better with turkey – I’ve even served it to non-beer drinkers and they’ve loved the combination. … The dry tartness simply pairs astonishingly well with the favour of the bird, while the effervescence works to cut through the multiplicity of flavours on the plate—gravy, potatoes, etc.”
My Usual Response
I lean Belgian. Many are quick to recommend Saison Dupont, and it works—but then again, it works with nearly everything, famous as a beer that works well with a variety of meals. While easy to drink—a plus in my book, when the focus is on the conversation and the food—it’s drier than what I want with a savory roast bird.
We’ve had better holiday experiences over the years with Dupont’s Avec Les Bons Voeux, originally a holidays-only beer. For me it’s a beautiful compromise between a saison and the sorts of tripels and strong blond ales recommended by Herz and Conley. Avec Les Bons Voeux has more residual sweetness than the saison, making a more pleasant contrast with savory bird and gravies. Meanwhile it still has that peppery-herbal character from its fermentation and hopping, finding common cause with the stuffing.
An alternative that does the job equally well for the same reasons: Blaugies La Moneuse. Notably, these all come in convivial 75-cl bottles; there’s something irresistible about the sound of popping corks after carving that big bird.
Also: These beers are relatively high in alcohol, which is appropriate for festivities and can help limber you up for those political chats with the family.