Autumns are short in America’s Finest City. The transition from summer’s dog days to mall-Santa season seems like it happens in the blink of a sunglass-shielded eye. But it’s worth taking time to enjoy this stretch from a culinary perspective. Not only is a plethora of produce available, but the weather’s perfect — not too hot, not too cold — to enjoy just about anything. In my opinion, the best way to make the most of autumn dishes, as with any and all food, is in tandem with beers that work with their sweet, savory, herb- and spice-heavy flavor profiles.
Beer-pairing’s easy in summer, when everyone’s primed for hoppy IPAs, pale ales, and light-bodied lagers. Ditto winter, when stouts of all types — oatmeal, chocolate, and imperial — are no-brainers. Pairing with fall fare (exemplified by the traditional Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings) requires finesse, a mastery of mid-bodied beers often overlooked by those seeking the ultimate in refreshment or decadence.
Following are the beers that I feel offer the best compatibility with autumnal offerings from several of San Diego’s top brewing companies.
The Lost Abbey, Lost & Found Ale: A New World take on a Belgian dubbel, this medium-bodied quaff is bready and spicy, with dried-fruit notes. It sounds like a Thanksgiving dressing, and, not surprisingly, serves as a superior pairing, particularly with dressings made from darker breads like rye.
Dogfish Head/Victory/Stone, Saison du BUFF: This farmhouse ale collaboration from Stone Brewing Company is brewed with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. The body is light, allowing for all those herbs to shine through and sync up with any and all dishes featuring the same ingredients. Come fall, that’s just about everything.
Iron Fist, Spice of Life: Variety is the spice of life. In this case, it’s the variety of ingredients this Vista brewery uses in this full-bodied, slightly sweet beer made with grains of paradise, bitter orange peel, and coriander. Alone, none screams Thanksgiving, but together, they make a nice foil for everything from cranberry sauce to chestnut stuffing.
AleSmith, Anvil ESB: Perhaps the most-often-forgotten in a line of forward-flavored, award-winning brews, this medium-bodied beer is a model of balance. Neither the malt nor the hop is overstated, making for a versatile beer to match up with any savory dish.
Alpine, Mandarin Nectar: Another beer that fades into the background — Alpine’s IPAs are the stuff of legend among hop heads — this one is exceptional with food in general, but perhaps never so much so as during November. The Mandarin oranges and orange-blossom honey used to brew it complement yams, carrots, and poultry with sweet and citrus-based sauces and glazes.
Ballast Point, Big Eye IPA: By now, you’ve noticed this list’s lack of hoppy beers. With few cold, light, or spicy dishes hitting tables in the fall, there’s not nearly as much call for crisp, hoppy ales, but the malty backbone that makes this India pale ale more British than West Coast also makes it the best IPA for the Thanksgiving table.
Karl Strauss, Red Trolley Ale: Malt is the name of the game here, too. The most award-winning Irish-style red ale over the past half-decade goes well with sweet potatoes, dressing, and even some rich, caramely desserts, thanks to its pronounced, slightly sweet toffee notes.
Coronado, Mermaid Red: On its own, this red ale toes the line between savory and sweet, enough so that the elements work to almost cancel each other out. When food enters into the equation, particularly dishes with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and allspice, it brings out cocoa nuances that make both the beer and the food worlds better.
Manzanita, Rustic Horizon Red Ale: Like the appeal of the previously mentioned reds but have to have those hops so adored throughout San Diego? This is a nice compromise. Hops come on strong without dominating or taking too much away from the malt body that makes it Manzanita’s best-suited fall fluid.
Green Flash, Trippel: Most Belgian trippels are golden yellow, light, and effervescent. Green Flash’s — named the best Belgian-style abbey ale in the country at last month’s Great American Beer Festival — is more medium in body and comes through with more dried-fruit character than the fresh citrus common in traditional trippels. That, and some subtle spiciness, makes it more suited for traditional American autumn fare.
Lightning, Fulminator Lager: This dopplebock is the only lager on this list, not because lagers don’t go well with fall food, but because there aren’t that many produced in San Diego County — and few that are better than the ales put out by the companies that produce lagers. This Poway brewery makes more of the stuff than any other local operation. With its strong character and slight sweetness, this is the lager that goes best with a Turkey Day spread.
Mission Brewery, Amber Ale: Many beer geeks steer clear of ambers on basic principle, remembering a time when amber and red ales were ubiquitous, and, for the most part, bland and unadventurous. Thing is, they’re natural fits for savory, cooler-weather cuisine, especially when they’re bold enough to stand up to it. This one is.
Others: For simplicity’s sake, the focus of this list is on beers available in bottles, but if you’re inclined to visit a brewery to get a growler of fresh beer to bring home for your pairing pleasure, one of the most ideally suited brews for November noshing is Societe Brewing Company’s Belgian amber ale, the Debutante. Other good go-withs: the light pumpernickel character of Latitude 33 Brewing Company’s Pasha’s Rye Brown, and the clove notes of Stumblefoot Brewing Company’s Dunkelweizen.