I'm pretty sure there's something written in the Constitution mandating there be at least three kinds of pie served at Thanksgiving unless you want to be deemed unpatriotic or something. And you need the turkey, of course, golden brown atop a wreath of roasted vegetables. And a healthy pile of stuffing, balanced along the edge of your plate alongside at least two kinds of potatoes.
Thanksgiving is a holiday built around getting together with friends and family over a gluttonous feast and a few bottles of something tasty. And pie. It's my kind of party.
But man, do I hate the shopping part. Long lines, crowded aisles, monster bills, and freakin' reservations for turkeys? By the time I get to what is normally my favorite part of the market (the beer section, duh), I'm too anxious to get out of the store to want to spend much time thinking about what to drink.
Thankfully, shopping for awesome Thanksgiving beer is really easy. For a full night of tasty pairings, you just need three different bottles. (In quantities appropriate for your crowd, of course.) Ready to stock up?
For Pre-Dinner Drinking and Light Appetizers: Witbier
If you're a true Thanksgiving professional, you sit down for your meal prepared. I'm talkin' bib, elastic waistband, and an empty stomach. And something in your glass. But diving into bold beers right when you get to Mom's house isn't the best idea—you'll want to get things off to a gentler start.
For the first beer of the evening, grab yourself a witbier. This is a Belgian-born wheat beer with a refreshing spritziness, spiced up with orange peels, coriander, and a flavorful yeast strain for fermentation. It's a tangy, citrusy, spiced delight, with a gentle, bright sweetness that is perfect for an introductory toast alongside shrimp cocktail, vinaigrette-dressed salads, and other light appetizers.
And actually, if you're not so into sides and are sticking to turkey breast with cranberry sauce (what's wrong with you?), you won't be in trouble if you've still got beer in your glass when the main course is served. The beer won't trample delicate white meat, and it will taste great as a soft counterpoint to tart, tannic cranberry sauce.
Witbiers to try: Allagash White Dieu du Ciel! Blanche du Paradis* Ommegang Witte St. Bernardus Wit Hitachino Nest White Ale
For the Main Event: Bière de Garde or Dubbel
Once the table is groaning under the weight of stuffing, mashed potatoes, and the big bird itself, you'll want to get a fresh beer in that glass. Witbier will get lost amongst the roasted flavors of caramelized brussels sprouts, rich stuffing, sweet potatoes, and juicy turkey (especially if you're a fan of the dark meat, like me).
I've spent the last two years on this site extolling the virtues of amber bière de garde as my Thanksgiving beer of choice, but I'll say it again. Bière de garde is the answer to Thanksgiving. It's the closest thing to a one-size-fits-all pairing that you'll find for this epic meal.
These darkish bières de garde (you'll see them labeled as ambreé, meaning "amber") have a deeply bready, slightly caramelized maltiness that runs right alongside the similar flavors created in Thanksgiving specialties as they roast in the oven. But there are other reasons it works so well. First, most of these beers have a fairly assertive level of carbonation to keep your palate refreshed amidst all this rich food. It also offers softly fruity, spicy fermentation flavors that complement the nutty and earthy flavors of fall produce. There's enough alcohol here to help the beer stand up to fatty dishes, but enough liveliness to keep it from overwhelming your palate as you munch on.
The only problem: you may not be able to find it unless you have a great beer store nearby.
If you're having trouble getting your hands on a great amber bière de garde, a Belgian dubbel is a widely-available alternative that won't disappoint. It'll be a bit fruitier than a bière de garde, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. You can expect a dense dried fruit flavor—like drinkable dates and raisins—cozying up to peppery and clove-like yeast flavors that fit in well with the warm Thanksgiving flavor palette. Dubbel has the alcoholic strength and effervescence necessary to stand up to the heaviest of gravy-soaked bites, and there's a rich maltiness that finds a connection in oven-roasted foods.
Bonus points: both of these beers traditionally come in stately, corked 750 milliliter bottles that lend a little more class to the dinner table than your average six-pack.
Bières de garde to try: Brasserie Dupont Bière de Beloeil Brasserie St. Sylvestre's Gavroche
Dubbels to try: Ommegang Abbey Ale Brasserie Dupont Moinette Brune Rochefort 6 St. Bernardus Prior 8 Chimay Première (that's the red one)
For Dessert: Doppelbock
Alright, I've gotta admit something. A couple paragraphs ago I referred to turkey and sides as "the main event." But...I don't really think of that stuff as the main event. To be totally honest, I spend most of my Thanksgiving dinner waiting for pecan pie. That stuff is my favorite, and I've never been afraid to gild a lily or two in the name of a stellar beer pairing. For dessert, you're going to need another beer.
Pairing with a dessert course like the one you're likely to encounter at Thanksgiving is no easy task. Apple, pecan, and pumpkin pies are likely to show up alongside each other, and they're wildly different desserts. Different pies have different needs.
No matter which pie you pick (just kidding, I know you're going to try them all), you're going to want a beer with some sweetness to it. Pairing a sweet pie with a less-sweet beer will make your drink taste harsh in comparison, bringing bitterness, astringency, and alcoholic heat into focus in a way that isn't pleasant. Beyond the issue of sweetness, we're looking for flavors that complement the dessert course's fruits, nuts, and heavy spices. To me, those flavors ask for a beer that shouts "caramel."
In the past, I've recommended well-aged English barleywine, and by all means, if you can easily find yourself a bottle of J.W. Lees Harvest Ale, go for it. You won't regret it.
You'll likely have an easier time finding a rich doppelbock, especially the gem known as Ayinger Celebrator. Doppelbocks are all about deep maltiness, emphasizing the flavors of caramel, berries, toffee, and chocolate that can be coaxed from the beer's dark malts. Some examples, like Celebrator, have a pleasant sweetness that helps them make friends with dessert. Though they won't tear your face off with excessive alcohol, there's enough there to help the beer assert itself amongst the creaminess of pumpkin pie or the whipped cream that you'll pile on top of your dessert plate.
Doppelbocks to try: Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock Thomas Hooker Liberator Doppelbock Ettaler Curator Doppelbock* Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel
Still Thirsty? Some Bonus Beers:
Thanksgiving is a time for celebration. And proper celebrations call for Champagne. The beer world's answer is an unusual beverage known as bière de Champagne. It's pretty much exactly what you're imagining: a festive bottle (crowned with a cork and cage) full of beer with wine-like levels of alcohol and explosive carbonation that can send a cork flying. I'd recommend Brouwerij Bosteels' Deus—it's a spicy and bright sipper with a floral aroma that'll remind you of ginger, pears, and honey. It makes for a great start to a dinner party.
For after-dinner drinking, I reach for a big ol' gnarly imperial stout. These are intense beers that will overpower almost anything at the dinner table with elevated alcohol levels and extreme bitterness, but they make for a great close to the meal. Wrap yourself up in a glass of rich, chocolatey, complex imperial stout at the end of the night, and give thanks for the fact that life. Is. Good.
Note: Starred beers are distributed in the state of California by the author's employer.