You can smell it, walking down the streets of Eugene: fermentation. The aroma of leaves and apples on your neighbors’ lawns is the byproduct of the work of a whole civilization of bacteria, yeast, little bugs, and fungus breaking down the summer’s bounty into next year’s tilth. Those aromas, the ebbing daylight, the imminent rains: signals to bundle up and share warmth with our friends. This is epic meal time.
To paraphrase a superhero movie: With great flavor comes great pairing opportunity. Yes, that was a terrible paraphrasing, but let’s keep moving. The impending feast and its traditional accouterments lay out a gauntlet of flavors, all at once, that can be hard to navigate. Additionally, the imagery of a stuffed Thanksgiving table presents a limited view of acceptable beverages– carafes of wine in straw diapers astride cranberries, corn, and sweet potatoes tilt the tables away from a more versatile and traditional drink (I think we all know where I’m going with this).
I’ve been thinking about what beers I want to bring to Thanksgiving dinner. The hosts are vegetarian; I probably won’t be bringing a smoked porter. But when I think of turkey, I feel it’s fairly forgiving, and pretty much absorbs whatever you put on it. It can (but hopefully doesn’t) turn out somewhat dry, which I’d want to counter with a fuller-bodied beer. IPA would be fine, if you must; Sam Smith’s IPA has plenty of body, and enough hop presence to liven up a bite of turkey or salad.
The real challenge is to find a couple beers that will pair well with most anything on the Turkeyday table, and IPA is a little too specific. My first inclination is to save the rich and sugary beers for dessert, and lagers for pre-game; we’re looking for richness and earthy flavors. If you’ll be doing traditional dishes like candied yams, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes & gravy, I would pick a strong Belgian ale; they are rich in flavors, but are drier than most other strong beers. Because you’ll be filling your plate multiple times with everything in sight, don’t worry– just start light and go dark. If you are among the few capable of restraint in the plating department, you will likely enjoy the progression of flavors more. A Belgian-style pale or saison with salad and veggies; a dubbel or brown (like Nostradamus), with richer earthy-spice flavors and a sweeter aroma will be complemented by buttery mashed potatoes and your bird. If you want to break some pinot fans out of their box, pop a bottle of Flanders Red, like Rodenbach Grand Cru; its rich oak, dark fruit, and hint of cocoa pair well, and won’t be subdued by the butter on your corn.
At this point, no doubt you’ve lost count of your trips to the buffet table, and all the food is absorbing the alcohol faster than it can get to your head. I recommend a short break for a sip of peppermint tea. Peppermint is a digestive aid vis-a-vis slightly irritating your stomach lining, causing it to work a bit harder. Licorice helps too– anything with that flavor, like fennel, is helpful after a big meal. You’ve probably had (or noticed) the little candy-covered bits at Indian restaurants. Those are fennel seeds, and help freshen your breath and soothe a stuffed stomach at the same time.
And now it’s time for dessert. Pumpkin, apple, blueberry pie… gingerbread and ice cream…
One of the best beer desserts I ever had was Uinta’s Labyrinth Black Ale (a 13% doozy) with a well-prepared glass of absinthe alongside. If your guests are sticking around / have a designated driver, I’d recommend a hearty conversation along with those two (not for the faint-of-heart!). But you might want something a little more… normal. Barrel aged beers make excellent dessert pairings (or just desserts), as do Belgian quadrupels, barleywines, imperial stouts, and Scotch strong ales– really anything with a good dose of sweetness will keep the pleasurable feeling of a rich, sweet, creamy dessert rolling right along. Breaking into the stash of old, strong beer is a great way to thank your friends and loved ones. Come on in and ask us for some recommendations, we’ve got plenty!
A bit of history: the early European settlers definitely brewed beer in their first years here; some of it may have been made from maple or birch sap and flavored with herbs until they began importing malt from England; the Native Americans definitely made birch and maple beers. No doubt these were primitive by our standards, but there are extensive records that brewers knew the effects of the various wild-harvested herbs they used; most have medicinal value, some enhance the effects of alcohol (yarrow, for example, is a famous “intoxicant”), increase mirth (St. John’s Wort), or prevent scurvy (nettle, spruce). This brings back a whole new meaning to “seasonal beer!”
Isn’t beer fun?