Turkey and Beer

© Thomas Cizauskas. 2003
updated 2005

For Thanksgiving this year ... try beer!

Turkey can be such a bland dish. Yes, the bird can be served smoked. And others have suggested deep-frying. But turkey often needs a 'leg-up'. And in this case, the winner is ... beer!

The Flavor Hook

Why? Well, brewer/writer Garrett Oliver calls it the "flavor hook". It's the toasted, biscuity, caramel, and browned flavors which are all inherent to beer and to many cooked foods. That 'other' beverage choice - wine - fails in bringing those elements to the table.

Beer Choice

For a beer choice, some gourmands have suggested Abbey-styles, hop-happy IPAs, or weizens. I disagree - these are too flavor-potent for the turkey. I recommend Saison, a Belgian farmhouse-style ale. Its 'ur-wheatiness', gentle fermentation character, hints of citrus fruits, and subtle spice bring interest to the bird without stealing from the meal. To the traditional side dishes of cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and, in my household, kugel, a Saison delivers textural contrast while its higher alcohol (in the 6-8% range) accommodates turkey's tryptophan induced euphoria. My favorite selections are Saison Dupont, La Chouffe, Ommegang's Hennepin, and Clipper City's Red Sky At Night - not necessarily in that order.

Beer Options

As an alternative, I recommend Flemish Red Ale. Its acidity enlivens the bird - so to speak - while its cherry-like fruitiness mates well with the sweet accoutrements. Here: Rodenbach, Verhaegge's Duchesse de Bourgogne, or even Liefman's Goudenband (although this would be more accurately described as a Belgian Sour Brown). A pale bock could be another delightful pairing. The sweet malt middle of this higher alcohol German lager would complement the turkey meat. For hops to add spice, look for a New World variation, such as Clipper City's Small Craft Warning Uber Pils.

Cooking with Beer

Fraoch Heather Ale is a Scottish import which is brewed with heads of ling and bell heather in full bloom. In her The Beer Cook Book, Susan Nowak has a recipe for Grouse Seared in Heather Ale and Honey which would work well with turkey. She marinates the bird with Heather Ale and then makes gravy with the beer: "Stir plain flour into remaining fat/juices in the roasting tin and cook for a minute. Slowly stir in about 1/2 pint reserved beer stock to make smooth, slightly thickened gravy. Strain into a clean pan and reheat gently, adding a little heather honey, just enough to flavour the gravy without smothering the gamey taste."

Wine ... if you must

If I were forced to slum it, and drink wine with the feast, I'd open a good Austrian Gruner Veltliner. It marries slightly pungent aromatics with peppery minerality. Or, for the wine world's answer to a Belgian red, I'd try a cru Beaujolais. It combines sweet red cherry fruit with high acidity: appropriate for a bland turkey. Beaujolais is an underpriced wine, as well.

After the Turkey

For post-troughing, I've sipped a sweet, strong, Dragon Stout from the Caribbean. (The late, glossy, Beer, The Magazine once published an article recommending sweet stout as the only beer that could compete with and complement a good cigar.) Any strong stout would work well as a digestif. Try, for example, Clipper City's Peg Leg Imperial Stout or Brooklyns Brewing's Black Chocolate Stout. As well, I've drunk German Neuzeller Klosterbrau's wacky, low alcohol (3.4%) Black Abbot to while away the food haze. Dark and sweet and very roasty, it's laced with lactose like a milk stout.

Baltimore Sun columnist Rob Kasper once proclaimed: "Relatives may look askance at me, fellow diners may tisk their disapproval, but I am going to do it. This Thanksgiving I am going to drink beer with the bird."

I myself have resolutely followed this beer course of action for my Thanksgiving dinners. And the beer invariably remains in front only of me.

The prophet may preach alone, but he is not thirsty!

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