Ask a Cicerone: The Best Beers for Thanksgiving

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Jesse Vallins of The Saint in Toronto

Ask a what? A Certified Cicerone®. That is, a beer expert who has passed a particular certification exam administered by the Craft Beer Institute. You can think of them as beer sommeliers.

What beers go well with turkey, gravy, stuffing, and pie? Here's the advice from our Cicerone crew.

"There's usually a pretty varied spread at my place for Thanksgiving. I like to go with a saison to pair across the board because it's so versatile. Turkey, even when done perfectly, isn't the most flavorful of meats, so I like to think of what else is going with it. Saison's yeasty and herbal notes resonate perfectly with the breadiness and herbal flavors of stuffing; its dryness contrasts well with the sweetness of roasted vegetables; and its effervescence helps to cut through the richness of things like buttery mashed potatoes and gravy."—Jesse Vallins (The Saint Tavern)

"I have the same beer every Thanksgiving with my meal: Anchor Christmas Ale. I enjoy the spicy character of the beer and I personally think it goes well with the different flavors that make up this special meal. The other great thing about this beer is that it is meant to be shared. Anchor releases this beer in six-packs and also a good looking 1.5L Magnum that looks great on the table right next to the turkey. You do have to watch out though, this beer changes slightly every year but usually doesn't disappoint."—Brian Hoppe (Hy-Vee)

"I sometimes suffer the wrath of my sisters if I forget my yearly pilgrimage to New Glarus for their Belgian Red. It is a staple of our family Thanksgiving meal. The sour and sweet notes pair so well my our smoked turkey and homemade stuffing. Unfortunately, New Glarus distributes only in Wisconsin, so if you aren't lucky enough to live in the Midwest, I would steer you toward a sour Belgian made with cherries, something with caramel or toffee notes to pair with traditional Thanksgiving fare, an English brown or, as it is the season, a malty Oktoberfest."—John Wyzkiewicz (Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant)

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Chris Cohen of the San Francisco Homebrewers Guild.

"Thanksgiving dessert is the perfect time to break out a special pumpkin beer! I love turkey and stuffing, but for me Thanksgiving is all about pumpkin pie covered in whipped cream. I pile on the pumpkin pie spice madness by pairing it with a sweet imperial strength pumpkin beer. One of my recent favorites is Almanac Beer Co.'s Heirloom Pumpkin Barleywine, a limited release that clocks in at a throat warming 12% ABV. Other great options include Southern Tier's Pumking, which features flavors of graham cracker crust, and Uinta Brewing's Oak Jacked Imperial Pumpkin, which has rich vanilla oakiness. These beers are all sweet and full bodied in their own right, but their alcohol and carbonation will cleanse your palate after a bite of rich pie. If you think this is all just too much pumpkin pie spice for you, pair that pie with your favorite barleywine and you can't go wrong."—Chris Cohen (San Francisco Homebrewers Guild)

"Selecting beers that won't overpower the meal is an important consideration. Conveniently, many beers that are in the fall color spectrum go well; golden, amber, red, and brown. Blonde ale (American or Belgian), American amber/red ale, and English or American brown ale generally have a nice balance of malt sweetness and hop bitterness. The color of the gravy—light or medium or dark brown—may help you determine which beer color to select. There's no right or wrong; match or contrast the colors to your desire. The lighter the beer color, the more biscuity the character, and the darker, the more caramely and malty."—Rob Hill (Total Wine & More)

"I love pairing earthy, bubbly saisons with big meals. Loveland Alework's Saison is relatively low in alcohol (5.4% ABV, so Uncle Donny doesn't get too loopy), dry, and spicy, with a crisp ending to scrub your palate after each rich morsel of gravy, butter, and turkey, leaving you refreshed and ready to stuff your face even more so the only hangover you have the next day is from the food."—Becki Kregoski (Bites 'n Brews)

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Anne Becerra of The Ginger Man in NYC.

"In my opinion, one of the most versatile beer styles to pair with food is a brown ale. Brown ales have a great balance of sweetness and dryness, are low- to medium-bodied, and tend to compliment dishes—not fight them. For big Thanksgiving dinners my go-to is Avery Brewery's Ellie's Brown Ale. In a traditional Thanksgiving meal, there's roast turkey (perfect with the roasty malts in the beer), juicy gravy (the sweetness and almost chocolatey flavors go so well with this), green beans (the slight bitterness in the beans is delicious with the nutty flavors in the beer), and the list goes on. Then once the meal is done and you want to curl up and pass out, I suggest finishing it with Founder's Breakfast Stout. It's slightly bitter, the way a good piece of dark chocolate is, and because it is actually brewed with coffee, it will give you that extra little jolt you need to make it through the dessert course."—Anne Becerra (The Ginger Man)

"Hands down, Bière de Garde is my favorite Thanksgiving beer. This traditional French beer may be something that your guests have never tried yet, fortunately, is now brewed by some great American breweries. My personal favorites are brewed by Stillwater, Ommegang and Schlafly. The soft malty caramel and toffee richness pairs well with brown foods, like turkey and gravy."—Judy Neff (Pints & Plates)

"My advice for Turkey Day is to bring a large format bottle, like a 750mL or a 22-ounce and encourage people to taste. I plan to open bottles and pass them around, letting my friends and family know The Bruery Autumn Maple will go great with the glazed ham—the brown sugar coating of the ham will compliment the sweetness of the beer. Lost Abbey Avant Garde will be tasty with your turkey; its deep golden color, good carbonation, and caramel and biscuit flavors and aromas will bring out the flavors of the roasted bird. Stuffing at our dinner is traditional, so a nice malty amber ale, like New Belgium's Fat Tire will do nicely. The biscuity, toasty flavors from the beer will compliment the bread stuffing."—Bryan Rounds (Central Coast Distributing)

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Aaron Libera of the Sanford Homebrew Shop.

"My go-to beer style for Thanksgiving is Bière de Garde. Pale French examples work best, like my favorite, Castelain Blond. A nice alternative is to celebrate America's first unique holiday with America's first unique beer style—California Common. Anchor Steam is probably the easiest example to find, and works all the same magic as a Bière de Garde, but it derives its mild funkiness from warm fermentation rather than wild yeast."—Aaron Libera (Sanford Homebrew Shop)

"Aside from your favorite pumpkin ale, I recommend Belgian Tripels and Flemish Red beers. Belgian Tripels, like Westmalle and Tripel Karmeliet, have enough alcohol to cut through the fats of gravy, buttery flavors, roasted or fried turkey, and creamy mashed potatoes. They can also stand up to sulfury foods like Brussels sprouts and creamed onions. Another match do is to replace your pinot noir with a fruity, earthy Flemish Red. These sour beers enhance all the roasted flavors, in addition to cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and mushrooms. As far as desserts go, I highly recommend barley wines for pairings. They are sweet, so your dessert doesn't taste flat, and their caramel flavors pair with every Thanksgiving dessert I can think of, from apple to pumpkin to nut pies."—Valerie Smith (Ecliptic Brewing)

"A nice brown ale or dunkel lager pairs well with just about everything on a Thanksgiving plate. These malt-forward beers will accentuate the toasty and savory flavor of stuffing and balance the briny juice of a succulent bird. Caramelized carrots and roasted Brussels sprouts will perk up and sweet potato pie with toasted marshmallow will sing with every sip. The sweet and toasty qualities of caramel or Munich malts make it all possible with the marriage of melanoidins in the food and the beer. Continental and Noble hops keep all this sweet goodness from ever being cloying and the beers are light enough to drink copiously with a huge feast."—Chris Kline (Schnuck Markets)

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Michael Ferrari of Luck in Dallas.

"Beer pairing for Thanksgiving is something that gets taken a little too seriously, in my opinion. I realize it's a great way to introduce people to the idea of beer pairing because you generally have a much wider audience than your average dinner, but to me, Thanksgiving isn't a time to show off; it's a time to relax and enjoy a good meal with family. That being said, my advice is keep it simple. There are a lot of diverse elements on one plate, so find a single, highly versatile beer to go with it all. Duvel makes a great Thanksgiving beer. It's got enough heft to stand up to that turkey leg, but it has a cleanness that won't get in the way of lighter dishes."—Michael Ferrari (Luck)

"My best advice is to find a great saison. It's your "Get Out of Jail Free" card for the craziness of Thanksgiving food. It will handle any preparation of turkey and pair well with both the light and dark meat. The spicy, herbal nature of saison will pair beautifully with your traditional Thanksgiving herbs: sage, rosemary, thyme, and more. Saison is delicate enough to not overwhelm the potatoes but flavorful enough to not be diminished by the richness of the gravy and stuffing. The yeasty fruitiness will even handle cranberries! Best of all, the higher than average carbonation level of a traditionally bottle-conditioned saison will scrub the palate clean, allowing you to enjoy the rich flavors of your food again and again. Two of my favorites are Saison Dupont and, if you can find it, Saison D'Erpe-Mere. Both are elegant, funky, flavorful, and well carbonated. Either one should be the guest of honor at your Thanksgiving table."—Christopher Barnes (I Think About Beer)

"Bière de Garde sounds exotic, and maybe it is a little, but it's not so hard to find—I've seen it pop up at my local mainstream supermarket. Why does this beer trump all other well-intentioned efforts to stand up to Thanksgiving dinner with all its twists and turns of texture and flavor? Let me count the ways: firm carbonation scrubs the palate between bites of those buttery mashed potatoes drenched with tongue-coating gravy; an earthy character from the yeast matches nicely with turkey or herbed stuffing; and there's even some fruitiness and a little toastiness. Look for Brasserie De Saint-Sylvestre and their 3 Monts golden ale."—Charles Coy (The Corner, Santa Monica, CA)