Talking turkey and beer for the holiday

Rob Kasper

originally published by The Baltimore Sun, November 19, 2003


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.

Most years, like most Americans, I have sipped wine during the big Thanksgiving feed. During the meal, I have had my annual rendezvous with gewurztraminer, the wine that is almost as hard to spell as pronounce, but takes kindly to turkey.

I have also continued my quest to find a riesling that doesn't shrivel my wallet or make my mouth pucker. I have rolled in the reds, starting with the well-behaved pinot noirs, then working up to the bigger, badder zinfandels and the cabernets.

While the wines have been good company, they sometimes did not put their best flavor notes forward when they were paired with a smorgasbord of dishes ranging from the gotta-have garlic-cranberry chutney to the ever-present hominy-and-sour-cream casserole to the dreaded brussels sprouts (gack!) to the glorious roasted bird with corn-bread stuffing and gravy. I figure why not give a glass of beer a try.

The truth is, beer has played a prominent role in my family's Thanksgiving Day celebrations. The adult males of our clan traditionally drink beer after the Thanksgiving morning football and basketball games.

The ice that keeps the beer cold has often come in handy. It has been applied, as a first-aid measure, to a suddenly swollen ankle or cut lip. Beer might have flowed in the pre-meal rituals, but once we got washed up and gathered round the dining-room table, beer remained in the coolers, and wine ruled.

This year, I vowed to bring a glass of beer to the dining-room table. But the question was which style of beer to pour and when during the meal should it show up. For help I turned to professional drinkers, that is, folks in the libation business, and got their suggestions.

If you are having sauerkraut, turkey's traditional side dish in Baltimore, stick with the Flemish ales, said Tom Cizauskas, a former brewer who now is a salesman for Legends Limited, a beer wholesaler.

The vinegar in sauerkraut has foiled many a wine but the Flemish ales can take the bitterness, Cizauskas said.

Another proponent of the Flemish ales was Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn (N.Y) Brewery and author of The Brewmaster's Table (Ecco Publishers, $29.95), a 2003 work devoted to matching beer with food.

In his book, Oliver writes that Flemish ale goes well with a dish containing "citrus or vinegar," or one that you "would consider squeezing a lemon over." Oliver did not address the concept of turkey and sauerkraut because he is not from Baltimore.

Neither am I. My status as a "come-here" becomes evident every Thanksgiving when I can't quite cotton to the notion of serving kraut with turkey. For me and other "foreigners," a more likely choice with kraut-free turkey would be malty, light- to medium-bodied beers such as Helles or Marzen style, Cizauskas said. These beers have what brewers call "restrained bitterness," a description that is quite appealing during family gatherings.

Hugh Sisson, head of Clipper City Brewing and co-host along with Al Spoler of the public radio show Cellar Notes, said that he, like me, would drink beer before the meal, then switch to wine when he sits down at the table.

"However, in years past, I have also found that Oktoberfest beers work well with the dinner, and it's a nice way to end that season before jumping into the winter beers. I also like some of the milder, low-in-hops porters or even mild stouts," he said.

Dave Butcher, an Italian wine specialist for the Country Vintner importers, told me that if I was planning to stick with one type of beer through the whole feast, a good pick would be the sharp, spicy Saison-style Belgium beers.

"Almost any wine would be at a loss with cranberry sauce or mashed sweet potatoes, even without the marshmallows," Butcher said in an e-mail. "But the Belgians, with their touch of sweetness, would be just fine."

Mary Zajac, of the Wine Source shop in Hampden, also steered me toward Belgian-style beer. But her suggestion for the beer to have with the bird was brewed in America at the Ommegang brewery in Cooperstown, N.Y.

My head was already swimming with beer choices when I spoke with Ron Furman of Max's on Broadway, a Fells Point bar. He suggested I try fermented apple cider, such as the Gwatkin Yarlington Mill cider that is imported from England. It is worth considering for historic reasons because the Pilgrims probably drank more apple cider than beer.

Then I began to think about the dessert course. Would I drink a beer with the pumpkin pie? A chocolate stout? A porter? My stomach began to swell.

So, in this, my rookie year drinking beer at the big table, I will probably take a safe course. I will take a glass of a straightforward beer, a pilsener, to the table. I will take a few sips between courses. If anybody disapproves, I will tell them the beer is cleansing my palate.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun

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