Bay Area Homebrew Chef Sean Z. Paxton may dash off a 12-course, high-end beer dinner one night or crank out a killer, beer-infused shepherd’s pie for hundreds of campers on another. But, in his book, there’s no feast better suited for weaving together craft beer and food than Thanksgiving.
In the weeks leading up to T-Day, Paxton typically holes up in his kitchen-turned-R&D-lab dreaming up new flavor combinations and testing new cooking techniques. The beer educator, podcast personality, and author rattles off beer-forward Thanksgiving Day recipes as easily as his own phone number.
Splash a few cups of wit into your cranberry sauce and sweeten with Belgian rock candy. Enrich your Brussels sprouts with a beer mustard and a brown ale cream sauce. Top those Old Ale-spiked yams with Westmalle Dubbel-infused marshmallows. (Yes! Beer marshmallows exist!)
“It’s my favorite holiday of the year,” Paxton recently announced on his Brewing Network show, The Homebrewed Chef. “It’s a four-day food orgy.”
When he started homebrewing 20 years ago, Paxton found himself with a lot of extra beer. Instead of dumping it or getting blackout drunk every time he needed to empty a keg, he decided to use it as a cooking ingredient. And – voila – the Homebrew Chef was born. You may recognize the name from his regular contributions to BeerAdvocate magazine or – if you happen to be able to see the future – from his still-in-the-works cookbook.
Lucky for us, we were able to pry him out of the kitchen long enough to take some notes on the best ways to introduce our favorite beverage into our favorite holiday meal. Whether you’re cooking this holiday, planning the T-Day beer menu or – you lucky so-and-so – just showing up to eat with a bottle of something tasty, Paxton’s got you covered.
For the chefs (aka tips for cooking)
Paxton once infused sugar with Centennial hops, spun it into cotton candy, and then wrapped it around a hunk of foie gras. (Mind. Blown.) Thankfully, your beer-centric T-Day meal doesn’t have to be quite so elaborate. In fact, most of Paxton’s recommended holiday menu isn’t super complicated.
The Golden Rule of cooking with craft beer? “Ask yourself, ‘What will it add to the recipe?'” he said. “It can’t just be your favorite beer in your favorite dish.” Here are a few other tips to remember:
Turkey loves beer, especially in a brine. Prepping a bird with brew helps tenderize it, keeps it moist, and adds depth to the taste.
Be wary of super-hopped IPAs or super-roasty stouts in braised, baked, or other long-cooked dishes. Reducing those beers concentrates natural bitterness and astringency. “It can be tricky, because the beer is going to change in the food.”
BREAKING NEWS: Booze gets people drunk. Heating it up (to around 190) will rid your dish of much of the alcohol, though some amount will remain, he said. Just something to keep in mind when feeding non-drinkers like, you know, small children.
Look for the “flavor vehicles.” Starchy – and typically less flavorful sides – like potatoes, rice, or bread stuffings are great showcases for a good brew. Paxton has a killer recipe for mashed potatoes with roasted garlic and IPA.
For the cicerones-for-a-day (aka tips on pairing)
Anyone whose Thanksgiving proceeds in as orderly a fashion as a beer dinner – with dishes arriving course by course alongside perfectly picked beers in half-filled tulip glasses – either deserves a medal or a straightjacket.
But how, exactly, are you supposed to build a beer menu around the happy chaos that defines most of our holiday feasts? Relax and keep it simple, Paxton said. After all, “you’re with your family!”
Instead of tailoring each beer to each dish, try bringing four or five really great bottles, pouring them all at once and encouraging your friends and family to taste each beer along with each dish. “You’ll discover how these flavors interact with each other,” he said. “You may teach them something.”
Thanksgiving is a helluva excuse to bust out that special 750 ml beer you’ve been hoarding, he pointed out. (Hello, Aunt Sally! Let me introduce you to my friend, Dark Lord.)
For those who want to try beer-to-dish pairings, one of the keys is matching intensity to intensity. That big barleywine may overpower the turkey, but it could go great with cheesecake.
And while you can both cook with a beer and then pair the dish with that same beer, “it’s kind of a cop-out,” Paxton said. Try picking a beer that accentuates the dish, a tangy framboise with a chocolate dish, for example.
For the guests (aka great bottles to bring your host)
The Bruery‘s Autumn Maple. Why? You can’t really go wrong with a beer whose flavors of roasted sweet potato and maple syrup practically scream “Fall!”
Firestone Walker‘s DBA. Why? The super-malty richness just makes it a great beer to pair with food in general.
Russian River‘s Consecration. Why? This sour, brown beauty is aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, which is sure to please the wine drinkers at the table.
Jolly Pumpkin‘s Bam Biere. Why? The brightness and slight tartness of this farmhouse ale can help cut some of the richness in your Thanksgiving Day meal.
Dogfish Head‘s Indian Brown Ale. Why? Hoppy, malty, and caramel flavors make this hybrid beer a jack-of-all trades at the dinner table. Just be careful, it can overpower more delicate dishes.