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Suds with Sophie: Yeast and Beer Pairing

Brewing Ingredients: Yeast, Part 2

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, now is the best time to scour the shelves for the perfect pairing beer. The key to this holiday’s perfect beer pairing? Yeast!

Last time, we had a quick introduction to yeast, and this time, we’ll delve a little deeper into the science and flavors of yeast and how that knowledge is going to help you out on Thursday. 

First, science. There are two basic families of yeast: ale and lager. Lager yeast – Saccharomyces cerevisiae – ferments at lower temperatures than ale yeast and therefore produces few flavors itself. Lager yeasts are known for their clean fermentation and clear body.

Germany is the master of lager yeasts. Remember all those Oktoberfests you were drinking a few weeks ago? As with most German beers, the Oktoberfest style is a lager. Recall that beautiful caramel; those toasty, bready notes; and that the beers were probably clear, with a clean finish. Pilsners are the classic lager – they have a pale, clear, clean body – but even a big doppelbock is a lager. 

Lagers might have been great for the beginning of fall, but this is now the season for ales. Unlike the small variety of lager yeasts, there are hundreds of varieties of ale yeasts, each producing its own distinctive characteristics. 

Ales also ferment at higher temperatures than lagers, so they produce more flavors – either esters or phenols – through fermentation. Fruity flavors such as banana or bubblegum are esters, and basically everything else, including spiced flavors, is a phenol. Too much of either of these is dangerous, but the right amount can make a beer spectacular. 

This brings us to the fun part: food pairing!

Belgian ale yeast is known for its particularly high fermentation temperatures and large amounts of phenols (spices). Think about that beautiful turkey you’ll be eating next week – its fatty, peppery skin; juicy meat; spices of all sorts. Now the stuffing, bready and rich with fresh herbs and spices. On to the green beans with onion, thyme and pepper. Creamy mashed potatoes with fresh herbed gravy. You get the point: What you’ll have is a table full of dishes with rich herb and spice flavors.

Because you’ll be eating the whole farm this holiday, Belgian farmhouse ales are going to be your perfect pairing secret. Modern beer drinkers may find the style’s name to be restrictive and indicative of the beer flavors, but not all countries are as “by the book.” Belgian brewers, for example, have never cared much for style limitations, and instead, they view beer as an art and create brews that are unique and delicious in their own right. 

I suggest paying a bit less attention to the style and focusing on the beer itself. I generally recommend farmhouse ales for Thanksgiving pairings, but a variety of styles will fit perfectly. Some of these styles can be harder to find than others here in the U.S., but keep an eye out!

The ideal style – but most likely the most difficult to find – would be a traditional bière de garde. This style with a French influence has a light, malty body; caramel flavors; and an earthy character that will make the heaviness of the dishes lighter, stand up to their intensity and pair well with caramelized and spiced flavors. 

A beer that’s easier to find but tricky to trust is a Belgian saison. Saison is a bit of a catchall category, and the beers in it can range from high-alcohol, spicy, punchy beers to light and mild, easy-drinking ales. It becomes especially important here to understand the individual beer you’re picking up. The classic example is Saison Dupont: a beer that’s full bodied and filled with estery citrus, spice notes and a light breadiness. 

Honorable-mention Belgian ales include dubbels and trippels – styles originally brewed by monks. Traditional trappist (monk-brewed) brands that you can find in the U.S. include Chimay, Rochefort and Westmalle.

Choose a dubbel for a more malty, dark-fruit, high-carbonation pairing. Trippels have a much lighter malt base, more spices and phenolic flavors and the same higher carbonation to cut any heaviness from the food.

Happy Thanksgiving!