Food magazines must love this time of year. Throngs of unconfident cooks, dreading the duty of roasting the ceremonial family bird, look to the latest issue of Bon Vivant for step-by-step directions that will produce the plump, caramelized icon on the cover. Great, problem solved. But what to drink?
While there are many fine possibilities among commercial beers, we homebrewers have the luxury of being able to create one precisely suited to this festive occasion.
For most, putting on the dog for the in-laws means popping a wine. Riesling’s nice with roast bird, but if you’ve got the spare change, a well-aged bottle of white Burgundy is delish. Grab a bottle or two for grandma and you’re done.
But for those of us with a more sophisticated palate know that the bittersweet charms of a well-matched beer can take us to greater heights. And while there are fine possibilities among commercial beers, we homebrewers have the luxury of being able to create a beer precisely suited to this festive occasion.
My approach to beer and food matching involves three things: 1) matching intensities; 2) finding common elements; and 3) making sure the contrasting elements of alcohol, hoppiness, sweetness and fat are all in proper balance. There is a lot more I could say,* but right now you’ll have to take this on faith.
In terms of intensity, a turkey dinner is probably just a bit higher than average, and this would suggest a beer of a similar ilk. Belgian beers are so elegant and wonderful with food, that I’m thinking about something along the lines of an abbey beer.
But since this is Thanksgiving, why don’t we add some elements of a harvest beer? These take many forms. In the past, a harvest beer had a lot of meaning. Brewing was once deeply entwined in the natural cycles. Since the last of the previous year’s malt and hops were used up to produce “March” beers which had to last through the summer, the availability of ingredients to brew again in the fall must literally have been cause for dancing in the street.
In England, the country gents brewed legendary October beers on their estates, often aging them a full year before cracking the cask. At around eight to ten percent alcohol, these beloved beers were the precursors to both pale ale and barley wine.
The Germans of the Rhineland wrote poetry about their harvest beer, erntebier:
Oh, wonderful Erntebier,
You fest of freedom and desire.
Because of your beer tap,
Folk wean babies from the breast!
The beer itself was a brown, slightly strong (1050–1059/12–14°P), fairly highly hopped ale at about 40 IBU, with more than a passing similarity to the strong Sticke variant on Düsseldorfer alt, which happens to be from the same region.
To me, there’s no beer so evocative of fall as an Oktoberfest, with its creamy, malty richness. This beer style was created in 1810 for a royal wedding in Munich, and the tradition continues today as the world’s greatest drinking party, the Oktoberfest. The beer itself is a Bavarian interpretation of the Viennese amber lager that was popular at the time, and typical for Bavarian beer, is a little darker and richer than the beer that provided the inspiration. On its own, it’s pretty fine with turkey.
But we want to create something new, so we’ll be picking and choosing from all of these inspirations. Let’s just call it an abbeyfest.
Pilsener malt plus Vienna should make a perfect foundation. Additional caramelly, toasty notes will be added by melanoidin (aka aromatic or dark Munich) malt, and these will play off similar flavors to be found in the roast turkey. Since this will be a somewhat strong beer, we want to thin the body by the addition of a bit of partially refined cane sugar. Barbados, if you can find it (try www.sugarindia.com), has the most amazing rum-like aroma, but turbinado or demerara will work here. We’ll be using enough hops for a nice balance, but will refrain from too much hop character that might overwhelm the subtle flavors of turkey and gravy. A delicate dosing of spice provides a further connection to the meal.
If the plain Jane recipe won’t do it for you, there are always variations to try. This recipe would be a perfect base for a pumpkin beer—just add a couple of big cans of pumpkin during the mash, plus a teaspoon of powdered ginger and a quarter teaspoon each of cinnamon, and nutmeg at the end of the boil. You may decide you want to drink your cranberry relish in the form of beer, and this can be accomplished by adding two to four 12-ounce. cans of frozen concentrated cranberry juice (let it warm up first) to the beer at the end of primary fermentation.
Whatever the variation, do the job right and you’ll have a beer you can really get your fork into. And you might even get grandma to put down her Riesling.