Nearly 400 years ago, when the Pilgrims stared at the alien coast of Massachusetts, the sight must have filled them with equal measures of hope and dread. They were too far north: Their intended destination was Virginia, and navigation errors had taken them off course. But here were untouched woodlands—a prospect lost to Britain decades earlier—and plentiful game. After two months aboard the cramped Mayflower, should they settle here or head south?
William Bradford, who would later become governor of Massachusetts, recorded in his journal, "We could not now take much time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer, and it now being the 19th of December."
Beer writers love to quote the eight words that focus on the central need for beer, but that overlooks the urgency that attended this decision. The Pilgrims' departure from England had been delayed, so it was late in the year as they surveyed the American shore. Passengers were ill, supplies were dwindling—and, yes, the beer was getting low.
From our vantage point, the Pilgrims seem so dour that their distress over the beer supply usually raises a chuckle. But for 17th-century Europeans, beer was not a party beverage: It was a necessity for young and old alike.
In the urban centers of Europe, to drink water was to court disease and death. An understanding of basic sanitation lay far in the future, but the empirical evidence was powerful that beer was a more wholesome drink than water. The residents of London or Amsterdam had no idea that the long boil that begins the brewing process could have made their water as safe as their beer.
When the Mayflower set sail in 1620, a good store of beer was an essential provision. By the time they landed in Plymouth, however, there was so little beer left that the passengers, Bradford wrote, "were hastened ashore and made to drink water that the seamen might have the more beer" for the return voyage.
Even though beer had been in commercial production for a century or more in Europe, brewing was still part of a housewife's duties. So it seems likely that the settlers would have established domestic beer-making as a matter of course in their new home.
They brought barley (the grain base of beer) from England and planted it among their first crops. There are no records of hops (the bittering herb in beer) being among the provisions on the Mayflower. In 1629, the Massachusetts Bay Co. ordered hop seeds from England, but yields were small and the colonists had to rely on imported hops for many years to come. New York would become the first center of American hop-growing, but not for another two centuries.
If barley and hops in the New World were in too short supply for conventional brewing, the settlers adapted quickly. Native corn, wild hops, spruce tips and sassafras were brought into brewing use early on, and by the 1630s a ditty known as "The Forefathers' Song" documented the early brewers' resourcefulness:
If barley be wanting to make into malt,
We must be content and think it no fault,
For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins, and parsnips, and walnut-tree chips.
Our modern Thanksgiving celebration is such a strange mixture of sacred and secular, myth and fact, and some of our sweetest Thanksgiving traditions may not have very solid historic pedigrees. However, the turkey and pumpkin on our tables today are legitimate tributes to the first Thanksgiving; we should also clear a place for the rightful role of beer.
Without a doubt, beer was part of the first Thanksgiving, simply because beer was a part of every meal. The Pilgrim's beer was certainly an ale since that was the family of beers native to England then, as now. It was brown, not golden; the means to produce pale malts, which give rise to pale beers, were not discovered until the 19th century. And it probably had a smoky note to its flavor from the method of drying the malted barley; smokeless methods were still a century away.
So as you plan Thanksgiving dinner, why not include the original beverage? Of course, just as we've added a few non-native frills, like potatoes, to the traditional menu, we can widen the beer selection a bit beyond brown, smoky ales, and pair each course with a beer that will bring out its best.
Given the excesses of the main meal, it's best to keep the appetizers modest. The beers should start simply and progress from light to complex to follow the menu. As guests gather, the aperitif beer should be light and inviting. A very dry pilsner or a hoppy but delicate pale ale will tickle the appetite. The light, fresh character of these styles is a satisfying counterpoint to saltiness or oiliness in the appetizers.
The main course is, frankly, a jumble of flavors. The turkey, a rather bland centerpiece, partners with herbed stuffing; rich gravy heavy with caramelized notes; fat, earthy sweet potatoes laced with brown sugar; zippy cranberries; and a few bitter Brussels sprouts.
Instead of condemning a wine to certain defeat, I follow the recommendations of Garrett Oliver, the major proponent of beer at the table. He insists that bière de garde, a farmhouse style beer from France, is "the Thanksgiving beer"—a single beverage with its own herbal, caramel, and earthy flavors, and a cleansing rush of carbonation to offset the heavy fare.
Saved room for pumpkin pie? A companion beer has to suit creamy textures and restrained flavors. It's a good rule of thumb when pairing beer with dessert that the beer needs to be sweeter than the dessert, or it tastes unpleasantly dull and bitter in comparison. An oatmeal stout, with its silky texture, would leave you feeling thankful.
This article appeared in print with the headline "What to drink with pumpkin pie?"