Thanks for the Beer

Top off your holiday feast with the traditional beverage of choice.

By Julie Johnson

The Pilgrims weren’t wine people; they were beer people.

Beer, not wine, was the beverage of their Northern European home. In the cities they left behind, beer was the common beverage for adults and children alike. It was better than water, which brought disease. An understanding of basic sanitation lay years in the future, but empirical evidence showed that beer was a wholesome drink, thanks to the long boil that begins the brewing process. The Pilgrims regarded beer as an essential provision, and stocked the Mayflower with a good supply.

By late 1620, dwindling reserves precipitated the decision to land at Plymouth, rather than continue south to their planned destination in Virginia. William Bradford, who would later become the first governor of Massachusetts, recorded in his journal, “We could not now take much time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer, and it now being the 19th of December.”

The following year, the meal that is regarded as the first Thanksgiving undoubtedly included beer, by then brewed with barley grown from seeds the settlers brought with them.

What was this early beer like? It was certainly an ale, since that was the family of beers native to England. It was brown, not golden, as the means to produce pale beers were not discovered for another three centuries. And it wasn’t too bitter, since the bittering herb hops was not grown in the New World for many years after their arrival. The early brewers improvised with wild hops, spruce tips, and sassafras.

For this year’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner, why not plan to include the original beverage? Beers that draw on the characteristics of these historic brews—rich, malty, lightly bittered—would not be out of place on your table. (Admittedly, the cans that are popular with even the most high-end craft brewers don’t say: “white tablecloth.” Pour the beers in the kitchen, and use large, stemmed glasses.)

The classic holiday menu is a fairly sweetish spread, as entrées go. The main flavors emerge through roasting—caramelized notes in the crispy turkey skin and nutty, browned root vegetables. Creamy potatoes, candied yams, and silky gravy continue the theme. Let the cranberry sauce play the counterpoint. The best beer choices will echo the mellow flavors in the food.

Here are some beer styles from local breweries that will make your guests thankful.

A classic English brown ale may be closest to the 17th century Pilgrim brew, with roasty, chocolatey notes that complement but don’t intrude. Try Sweet Josie Brown Ale from LoneRider, a true-to-style brown that has been pleasing Raleigh drinkers ever since it shocked the brewery owners by winning a top national prize in their first year of business.

Greenville’s Duck Rabbit Brewery, which styles itself “the dark beer specialist,” offers a range of styles that love turkey. Turning to German traditions, try the obscure schwarzbier, a black lager. Despite the intimidating appearance, it’s a gentle drink, clean in the manner of lagers, with the coffee and toasted notes typical of darker-colored beers.

Finally, brewer and beer ambassador Garrett Oliver is an advocate for one of the best Thanksgiving beer styles: the French farmhouse ale known as bière de garde. It’s spicy and herbal, with lively carbonation, soft with a slight nutty sweetness and hints of fig. Durham’s Ponysaurus brews an elegant example, packaged in a stylish white can that just might pass muster on the dining table.

Who wants dessert? Pumpkin pie? Pecan? It’s hard to imagine a wine that isn’t defeated by these wildly sweet dishes, but beer can meet the challenge. Believe it or not, the rule of thumb when pairing beer with dessert is that the beer needs to be sweeter than the dessert, or it tastes unpleasantly dull and bitter in comparison.

A big, bold stout poured in a snifter should bring the meal to a suitable close. Gizmo BrewWorks’ Aztec Gold is an imperial chocolate stout that combines its alcohol heft (9.2 percent) with cocoa nibs and vanilla beans.

Some of our dearest Thanksgiving traditions may not have solid historic pedigrees. However, the turkey and pumpkin on our table today are legitimate tributes to the first Thanksgiving; we should also clear a place for the rightful role of beer.

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