The Best Beer To Pair With Your Thanksgiving Dinner

When family and friends gather round the table for a festive meal –- the Thanksgiving one being the gold standard here –- we typically think of wine as being the preferred beverage to accompany such celebrations. Either that, or sparkling cider if it is a gathering of those who prefer to abstain from alcohol.

What if your nearest and dearest are beer drinkers, however? There's no rule that says you need to save the beer for Super Bowl Sunday. In fact, according to Michael Murdy, a beer and food expert who established the website Robust Kitchen, a well-chosen beer can truly enhance your holiday meal. As he tells us, "[The] first criteria to creating a solid beer/food pairing is matching intensity. Get this right and you'll find, more often than not, [that] the rest of the components work in your favor." While Thanksgiving dinner usually involves a wide variety of dishes, when Murdy thinks of the turkey and its typical trimmings, he says it's "fair to say that the flavor intensity averages out at around 'medium.'"

Murdy does have one additional criteria for beer/food pairing, that being to "find consistent flavors." He describes the turkey, skin-on, as having "roasty and caramelized flavors," while the gravy is " usually fatty with some spice." The cranberry sauce and candied yams have fruit and spice as their dominant flavor, while Murdy notes that "most salads will have some kind of fruit and nuts," thus making their flavor profile both fruity and nutty.

Murdy recommends a Belgian Dubbel

So how do you pick a beer that goes with all of those different dishes? Michael Murdy tells us, "I do have several suggestions to fit the drinker's preference, [but] I think the Belgian Dubbel is the perfect match for many reasons." As to why the Dubbel should be the Thanksgiving beer of choice, he says it "match[es] up very nicely with the qualities of a roasted turkey" due to having a toasty flavor with notes of caramel. The Dubbel is also a high(ish) alcohol beer, typically 6% to 7% ABV, something he says "will help cut through the fat without overwhelming the medium flavor intensity of the dish." He also says this extra-bubbly beer will "help cleanse the palate in between bites to help you relive your food, bite by bite."

But what of the side dishes, how does Dubbel play with those? Murdy thinks it goes nicely with the cranberry sauce and yams due to its fruity, spicy flavor, which he describes as having hints of "prunes, raisins, dried cranberries and cherries, and maybe apple and pear [as well as] pepper and clove." He does admit that "if the salad was the main course, the Belgian Dubbel would not be the beer," since its flavors may not be an exact match for the salad ingredients (particularly if it's one of the more oddball offerings), but says that with the salad, the Dubbel pairing is "not perfect, but it'll do."

A Marzen might be better if you're not a fan of strong, yeasty beers

While Michael Murdy does say that he, himself, is "a huge fan of yeast-driven beers," he admits that the flavor of the Belgian Dubbel may not be to everyone's taste if they don't care for such yeastiness. In that case, if you still want to stick to a craft or import beer, he suggests serving the more approachable Marzen. Murdey describes the Marzen as a medium-bodied, malt-forward amber lager that's well-balanced but tends to "edge more toward the malty side." He says that the Marzen's medium level of alcohol (5.5% to 6.3% ABV) "will help cut through the fat without overwhelming the palate," and explains that "the low-medium bitterness and carbonation will help create a blank canvas for your tongue between every bite."

As to how the Marzen matches up with the individual dishes in the Thanksgiving meal, Murdy feels that its "toasty, bread-crust notes are tailored nicely to the Maillard products of the roasted turkey, oven baked bread ... and the starchy mashed potatoes." To Murdy's palate, many malt-driven beers seem to be overly-sweet, almost cloyingly so, but he does feel that their dry finish is "surprisingly refreshing." All in all, he feels that the Marzen can be "an easy crowd pleaser for those who are looking to bring something unique to the Thanksgiving table."

You can also pair beers with your dessert selections

So can you serve either a Dubbel or a Marzen with your Thanksgiving desserts, as well? Murdy would prefer that you didn't, should your budget and refrigerator space permit you to stock more than one beer. "There is little overlap in what works for Thanksgiving dinner and dessert," he tells us, but he does have some tips for how to choose a dessert beer. With desserts, he finds that it's best to look for complementary flavors rather than matching ones. As dessert dishes tend to taste pretty intensely of at least one ingredient, you don't want to double up on the main flavor, lest it become overwhelming. If you pair the cherry-based beer known as Kriek with a cherry pie, Murdy says the combination "will probably end with you hating the idea of ever tasting another cherry in your life."

Instead, Murdy suggests looking for beers with contrasting flavors that nonetheless work well with the dish. For pumpkin, he says vanilla will work, whereas cherry desserts go well with spice or chocolate-flavored beers and apple desserts get along nicely with spice-flavored beers. He does, however, say that the one exception to his flavor-matching ban is with chocolate desserts. While he endorses serving chocolate desserts with coffee stouts or fruit beers, he does find chocolate cake served with a chocolate beer (particularly an imperial bourbon barrel aged stout) to be "a lovely pairing."

There's one type of beer you should steer clear of

Michael Murdy does not insist that you stick with a Dunkel or a Marzen for Thanksgiving dinner. In fact, he has provided us with a list of other beers that would also work well for the meal, including Pale Ale (English or American, not India), Brown Ale, English Porter, Scottish Export Ale, Vienna Lager, Bock, or Rauchbier. As a rule of thumb, Murdy advises looking for a copper-to-brown-colored beer with an ABV between 4.5% and 7% and says that the best flavor profile would be one that balances bitter hops with malty sweetness.

One beverage that Murdy says to steer clear of, however, is a really dark beer. "I wouldn't go darker than brown," he tells us, explaining that "These beers tend to exhibit burnt flavors and can overwhelm the palate." If the beer you serve errs on the side of being too light, he does say it won't be nearly as bad as a too-dark beer, but still feels that "the beer won't be able to stand up to the intensity of the food" and compares the taste of lighter beers to "carbonated alcohol water."