Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Talking Turkey (and Beer)

Big Beer

De gustibus non est disputandum.

There is no disputing taste. Is what you taste, what I taste? Does the blue of the sky you see match the azure I note? A deductive discussion for scientists and philosophers, perhaps.

But as to gustatory preferences, I stipulate that one can rely on informed, experiential, and enthusiastic suggestions from those whose choices have jibed with your likes and dislikes in the past. Cogent expression counts too.

I wrote the following beer-with-turkey exhortation in 2003. Redacted slightly, it remains valid (for me) today, less for specific beer choices (doomed to be démodé) than the reasons for them. As to cogency, I leave that up to the reader.

For Thanksgiving this year ... try beer!

Turkey can be such a bland dish.

Yes, the bird can be served smoked or deep-fried, but even now, as a vegetarian of a couple decades, I remember that the Thanksgiving turkey often needed a 'leg-up'. For that support, I suggest ... beer!

When barley is malted and mashed, and when wort is boiled, browning reactions occur between proteins and sugars, just as they do when food is cooked. That creates —as brewer/writer Garrett Oliver has termed it— a flavor hook: "the element of the beer's flavor that mirrors a similar flavor in the food." The toasted, biscuity, caramelly, roasted, and browned flavors inherent to many cooked foods are also inherent to beer. That 'other' beverage choice - wine - fails in bringing those elements to the table.

For this reason (and others), beer is a more forgiving (or enlivening beverage) with food than is wine. Indeed, there are few poor beer-with-food choices; rather, there are pairings that are tastier than others. Beer is a vegetarian beverage; it seems natural that vegetables and grains would have an affinity for it.

Stillwater Stateside Saison

Back to turkey and beer. At the Thanksgiving table, some gourmands have suggested an Abbey-style ale, or a hop-happy IPA, or a German-style weizen as the beer of choice. Although these are fine beverages, I recommend a Saison —Belgian farmhouse-style ale— as the sine qua non. The beer's 'ur-wheatiness,' gentle fermentation character, hints of citrus fruits, and subtle yeast-derived spicing bring interest to the bird without stealing from the meal. To the traditional side dishes of cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and, in my household, kugelis (Lithuanian potato casserole), Saisons proffer textural contrast. A classic choice would be Saison Dupont.

Or, as an alternative, try Flemish Red Ale. This beer's acidity enlivens the bird -so to speak- while its cherry-like fruitiness mates well with the Thanksgiving meal's sweet accouterments. A few classics: Rodenbach, 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 of this German-style strong lager complements the turkey meat.

Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive 2013

If I were forced to slum it (okay, only kidding), and drink wine with the feast, I'd open a sparkling wine, or a good Gruner Veltliner. This Austrian white wine marries slightly pungent aromatics, hints of tropical fruit, peppery minerality, and quenching acidity.

For a red wine, the wine world's answer to a Belgian red ale would be a Beaujolais. This Gamay grape French red combines sweet cherry fruit with high acidity: appropriate for a bland turkey. Avoid the relatively insipid, gimmicky, Beaujolais Nouveau. Go with a cru Beaujolais instead. Look for a Moulin à Vent, Morgon, or Brouilly, for example. A more expensive choice, but a more elegant one, would be Beaujolais' northern cousin, red Burgundy, produced from Pinot Noir grapes. Or a Pinot Noir from Oregon, California, or Austria.

'Serious' meal?

There is another wine, one fermented from apples, that would also go well at the Thanksgiving table. An on-going renaissance of artisinal cider in the U.S. has made finding good cider easier than it had been. Pick one!

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 advice for many of my Thanksgiving dinners. Not all my fellow diners have agreed with me. The beer prophet may preach alone, but he is never thirsty!

  • Mulled wine for Thanksgiving. Video via Food Network.
  • Mulled beer (!) for Thanksgiving, using Quelque Chose. The beer, once brewed by by Canadian brewery Unibroue, doesn't appear to be made any longer. C'est dommage! Quelque Chose was a unique, wood-aged, un-carbonated, tart, cherry-beer. In its place, for a mulled beer, maybe a sweet fruit lambic, but one made without added flavorings.
  • "To give thanks is a matter of joy; should that be confined by excessive sobriety?" A gorgeous essay on the idea and practice of beer-and-food pairing, written specifically about the Thanksgiving meal, by beer writer Michael Jackson, for the Washington Post, in 1983. At the time, this was an idea absurd to many. [Thanks to Jay Brooks of the Brookston Beer Bulletin for the tip.]

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