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Monday, November 23, 2009

Talking Head: Thanksgiving beers: Don't serve a turkey with your turkey

click to enlarge Hennepin saison from Brewery Ommegang
  • Hennepin saison from Brewery Ommegang

If you are dreading the uninspired jug of chardonnay or white zin that your in-laws break out every Thanksgiving, why not shake things up a bit by bringing something out of the ordinary, something special, something with a beautiful label and a cork-and-cage closure that opens with a satisfying pop? No, not Champagne, but beer.

Sure, MGD or Bud Light are fine when you're chilling in front of the TV watching the game, but finding something appropriate for the dinner table can be a bit more intimidating. So many different flavors and textures are part of the mix, and not everyone has the palate for a complex, richly-flavored  beer. But don't despair; there are a number of excellent options that can outshine any wine.

Brooklyn Brewery's Garrett Oliver, author of The Brewmaster's Table, a book celebrating the pairing of beer and food, finds that bière de gardes, the earthy, country-style ales brewed in the border region between France and Belgium, are the quintessential Thanksgiving beers, and it's not necessarily because they pair well with turkey. "Well, let's face it--the Butterball is a sideshow; modern turkeys don't really have much flavor," Oliver writes. "[But] both [the stuffing and the gravy] have strong herbal flavors, which anchor the match with the beer's herbal flavors. Then the caramelized malt meets the brown turkey skin, the biscuity malt flavors match the lightly nutty flavor of the meat, and the carbonation lifts everything, so you don't realize you're eating so much."

Oliver recommends Castelain, a richly aromatic bière de garde from Bénifontaine, in northern France. Brewed  in a similar manner to Anchor Steam, using a lager yeast at room temperature for fermentation, followed by a cold lagering to keep the tastes clean and smooth, Castelain is light in color, with a balanced character that is not overwhelmed by the rich flavors of the Thanksgiving table. Earthy spices of fennel, licorice, hay, and lavender permeate the nose, while the flavor is citrusy and sweet in the center with a crisp, dry finish.

Matt Simpson, who runs The Beer Sommelier, a beer consulting business, favors saisons for Turkey Day. Saisons are the Belgian version of the French bière de garde, made by farmers to serve their fieldworkers during the summer. Initially low in alcohol, the style has become more refined and more spirituous. These bright, simple ales with hints of citrus and spice are well-balanced and refreshing, without being one dimensional. "It's all about balance," says Simpson, "you never want one side of the equation to overpower the other. The perfect thing about saisons is that they are a little bit dry and acidic so they go well with the main course. They're not obtrusive, not lacerative with their hops, so they go well with turkey, but have enough flavor to stand up to stuffing, maybe ham, something deeper into the meal. And they go extremely well with cheese. You can start with them before the appetizer and go straight through to dessert."

Although Belgium's Saison Dupont sets the standard for the style, Simpson says Hennepin, from upstate New York's Brewery Ommegang is an excellent choice. "Not only is it consistent and really well-made, you can go to almost any liquor store and pick up a bottle of Hennepin. For me it's a no-brainer, Hennepin is my go-to beer for almost any meal, but especially Thanksgiving."

There are plenty of other ways to go at this exercise. Kraig Torres of Hop City Craft Beer and Wine, shares 10 beers on the store's Facebook page to get you through Thanksgiving Day, starting with French sparkling cider with breakfast pancakes and finishing with a HaandBryggeriet Dark Force imperial wheat stout with Dutch apple and plum crumble. Torres leans toward malt forward selections, including the rich Tilburg's Dutch Brown Ale with the blessed meal itself. Add Jolly Pumpkin's La Roja Belgian amber ale with a mushroom soup appetizer and Gouden Carolus Cuvée Van de Keizer Belgian strong dark ale with second helpings if you just want to pile on.

If this all sounds a bit too exotic, why not go with a simple Oktoberfest märzen? Distinct earthy caramel malts ride on top of a medium-bodied well-structured lager with just the right amount of hop bitterness in the finish to leave a clean palate. Paulaner and Ayinger probably make the best German versions. Brooklyn and Thomas Hooker make excellent American interpretations.

All of these beers, including Castelain and three other bière de gardes are available at Hop City. By all means, ask the staff for help if you are unsure of your choices.

(Photo courtesy of Duvel Moorgat USA)

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