Ah, Thanksgiving and beer.
*See Also: Three Imperial Stouts to Try This Fall
Did the Pilgrims drink the stuff at the first coming together with Indians? (Probably not). Was it low beer supplies that caused those pious and persecuted souls to anchor at Plymouth Rock? (debatable).
These questions persist for no other reason than we as a nation have an obsession with finding historical drinking buddies. Besides Ben Franklin and maybe Sam Adams, it's hard to think of an American beer swiller more exalted than the humble Pilgrim.
And while we may never know the exact influence of beer on the Pilgrims' landing -- the journals kept by those half-starved migrants present some historiographical challenges -- the mere presence of beer on the Mayflower has led to a strong body of work examining what makes a great brew to pair with a roasted turkey and the rest of the Thanksgiving fixings. The takeaway from all of which can be summed up as "caramelization."
"The key to great Thanksgiving beers is caramelization," Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery told magazine Imbibe. "It's the caramelized flavors of the turkey skin, the gravy and many other elements of the meal that tie the whole thing together."
While not so detailed, the helpful attendant at Bottleworks on 45th also used some form of the word caramel when asked about a drink that goes with turkey, pointing me toward some ambers and browns, ale types that can go light on the hops - which can clash with the sweet tastes of Thanksgiving - and strong on the malts.
With the Brewers Association pointing me in a similar direction -- ambers, browns and Oktoberfests -- I decided to cover the spread and left with the King Street Brown from Schooner Exact Brewing Co.; the amber from Port Townsend Brewing Company; and the Harvest Moon Ale from Snoqualmie. Then it was onward to West Seattle for an early Thanksgiving feast.
Perhaps implied in all the talk about "caramelization" is that few flavors on the Thanksgiving table are subtle, and what came out with these three beers was that while they all may complement the food well, the beer needed to be loud to be heard.
Both the brown and amber were fine beers on their own. While several of my dinner partners commented that the amber strayed from what they were used to from the style, it was a pleasant sip. King Street's label promised nutty malts and mild hops, and it indeed finished clean.
But both beers, while they didn't clash with the food, also didn't add to the enjoyment of the meal and instead got washed out - pushed to the back of the room by the green beans, meat and biscuits.
That wasn't the case with the Harvest Moon Ale. Described as an "Oktoberfest-inspired" beer, this one didn't get the full endorsement from my guide at Bottleworks, only because he wasn't positive it hew close enough to the style to fit the bill.
But the bottle advertises itself as a beer than can be enjoyed with our favorite fall foods, and I found this to be fair.
Its deep, roasted malt taste stood out in the meal, going toe-to-toe with other flavors and playing off them perfectly. With a 24 IBU, it kept the bitterness in check, though that number seemed on the low side for me; I actually noted how I enjoyed a bit of a hoppy finish. Despite what the literature says, a little bitterness helped remind me I was drinking beer and not, god forbid, water.
Since coming of drinking age, this was the first Thanksgiving meal I've gone beer-only for, and while I found two of the beers had some shortcomings, they were certainly better than a lot of the wines that made an appearance at my family's table over the years. And beer has this advantage: you can pound it in amounts ample to wash down inordinate quantities of potatoes and pie; try looking like a pious Pilgrim while chugging that cabernet.