The autumnal appeal of pumpkin, spice, and pumpkin spice beers is strong, but they’re overkill at a Thanksgiving table. Instead, look to Belgian styles—the original food beers. Nearly all will play more harmoniously with turkey, stuffing and sweet potatoes than layering a liquid spice cabinet over a meal that’s already defined by by fall seasonings.
It comes down to the common aspects most Belgian beers share: smooth malts, spicy-and-peppery yeast character, and an overall refinement that comes from hundreds of years of brewing tradition.
The best news: Pairing traditional Belgian styles with a rich, autumnal feast is so nearly foolproof that we don’t even have to get into the minutiae of this-beer-with-that-food. If your Thanksgiving menu includes roasted poultry, stuffing, vegetables swimming in various depths of cheese and butter, potatoes presented 14 ways, and baked desserts, proceed.
Entire books exist on the lineages of Belgian beers, but let’s stay simple. The styles you’ll want to focus on for your Thanksgiving table include saisons, witbiers, and abbey ales like dubbels, tripels, and quads. (If you have an authentic Belgian lambic or gueuze stashed in your basement, bust it out for Thanksgiving and also please invite me. I’ll bring soup.)
Here’s the game plan.
Set yourself up for success by shopping at a retailer with a better-than-corner-store selection of beer, either an independent bottle shop or a decent chain liquor store that you trust. Once safely in its fluorescent-lit confines, head for the Belgian beer section. It’s the one mostly dominated by 750-mLs bottles and corked offerings. (It is yet another fun aspect of many Belgian beers—Popping corks! Large bottles! Festivity!)
Start with the light stuff. Witbiers are a crowd pleaser, and like their non-Belgian cousins hefeweizen and American wheat beer, they’re refreshing, mellow and moderate in ABV. Your less adventurous drinkers will sip these all day, and they’re especially appropriate with lighter foods such as chicken, shellfish and citrusy salads. Steer clear of the versions brewed with fruit; the goal is simplicity. (If you see Allagash White, look no further—Witbier mission accomplished.)
Move into more substantial territory. Saisons are the Swiss army knives of food-friendly beers, so if you were to buy just a few bottles to cover the entire meal, go with a classic like Saison Dupont, or an equally versatile American interpretation like Jolly Pumpkin Bam Biere. Saisons are elegant and dry, with spicy, peppercorn-like yeast flavors, and substantial carbonation that helps cut through rich, heavy foods. Their typical orange, lemon, and peppery notes sync up with most fall foods’ herbs and seasonings. You could go on a weeks-long search for a sage- or chamomile-spiked beer to “pair” with Thanksgiving dinner… or just let Belgian yeast’s natural flavors do their thing.
Onward to the heavier-hitting abbey beers like dubbels, tripels, and quadrupels. These can really pack a punch in flavor and ABV, so make sure to have more refreshing options like witbiers or table beers at the ready. But for drinkers who enjoy complex, not-shy-about-the-booze flavors, these are a treat.
Dubbels, with their raisin, plum, and even clove notes, can stand up to charcuterie, duck, pheasant, and lamb. Tripels are lighter in color but not in flavor; they can have a bit of honey sweetness, peppery Belgian spice, and should always have plenty of lively carbonation. That makes them an easy partner for pork, creamy cheeses, and turkey. You’ll probably want to save a bottle of quad (sometimes labelled Belgian Dark Strong Ale) for dessert. These uber-complex, caramel-and-brown-sugar delights are all you need alongside a dessert cheese plate, dish of vanilla ice cream, or pumpkin pie. With all abbey ales, look for revered Belgian producers including Rocheforte, Westmalle, and St. Bernardus.
Here’s the great news about Belgian beers: It’s hard to screw the pairings up too badly. If you find a bottle of Flemish red, oud bruin, or Belgian pale ale, chances are it won’t clash with your Thanksgiving meal.
So don’t overthink it. Thanksgiving Day is supposed to be spent on more meaningful activities like waking Grandpa from his tryptophan nap, cleaning your nephew’s runny nose, and screaming at the TV when Eli Manning fucks up the play clock. And if, despite my advice, pumpkin beers and turkey really do it for you, then you have my reluctant blessing.