A number of years back, I experienced a surprising change of pace that involved the enjoyment of craft beers produced by micro-breweries. These brews matched perfectly to my appetite for fresh seafood. For me, this journey began with sushi and sashimi. The prevailing wisdom for pairing that Japanese cuisine with an alcoholic beverage has typically focused on sake, and light white or sparkling wines. Diners would often match that cuisine to a Champagne, a Prosecco-style wine, a Sauvignon Blanc, or Chardonnay. I too found that to be the perceived perfect pairing of seafood and beverage. That is, until I became exposed to artisan beer.
The Art of Artisan Beer
“Country of origin” beers don’t always match best with foods from their region. Conventional wisdom suggests pairing traditional Japanese lagers like Sapporo, Kirin Ichiban, and Asahi. But a waitress at a local Long Island sushi establishment suggested I try a Japanese microbrew. That was an enlightening experience, for it opened a new window for match-making seafood with beer.
Beer can be classified as either ales or lagers with sub-categories within each group. In general terms, the styles to pair with seafood are ambers, dark ales, light or pale ales, pilsners, lagers, stouts, and wheat grain beer. Variations in artisan beer variety derive from the choice of yeast, the additives, and the brewing and fermentation process. Like wine, beer also benefits from different methods of casking.
Originally aged in wooden barrels, modern beers are now mostly casked in aluminum or stainless-steel containers. Some specialty breweries will age beers in wooden wine barrels for 12 to 24 months. That process adds different layers of taste to beer. If one were to compare the body of a wine to similar qualities in beer, lagers and pilsners would be classified as light-bodied. Ales are seen as medium-bodied. And lastly, stout and porter are heavy-bodied beer. Yet, there can be surprises within those categories as well. Some dark beer brews can be deceptively light in taste. Let your taste buds—not your eyes—be your guide.
The Perfect Artisan Beer to Pair with Seafood
Within those classifications are a few principles to help you begin on the path to finding the perfect marriage of seafood and beer. There is some crossover between different fish and seafood dishes and different varieties of beer. A discriminating palate is always the final judge of which pairings are best. Remember, you are not only matching the taste of a fish species to a particular beer. You are also pairing to the way in which the seafood is prepared.
- Seafood like smoked fish, grilled or barbequed fish, and well-seasoned shellfish will complement a dark ale.
- Dishes with strong spice flavoring like paella, seafood pots, fried fish, lobster, and crab will match nicely to a pale ale.
- Lagers will also pair well with fish on the barbeque or grilled and deep-fried fish chunks like halibut, cod, and haddock, as well as many of the raw local shellfish species.
- A crisp and citrus-infused summer ale will highlight the flavors of seafood salads and lightly seasoned fish.
- India Pale Ales (IPAs) go well with full-flavored and seasoned seafood like crabs, prawns, shrimp, lobster, mussels, clams, oysters, as well as poached, steamed, and baked fish.
- Heavily seasoned and spicy seafood dishes will enjoy a marriage with the heartiness of a stout.
- Lagers and pilsners are versatile beers and combine well with a wide array of fish dishes: grilled, poached, steamed, and baked fish, as well as fried, barbequed, and smoked fish.
- Wheat beer, brewed with wheat and malted barley, is especially good with grilled shrimp, prawns, crawfish, and grilled, baked, or fried fish.
The Versatility of Artisan Beer
Beer may actually be a more versatile drink than wine for matching with food, especially seafood. The primary ingredient in wine is a grape varietal or a blend of grape types. But with artisan beer, you can mix and match grains, hops, and other flavorful adjuncts like spices and the rinds of various fruits. When comparing beer to wine for purposes of pairing with food, lagers compare favorably with lighter white wines while ales tend to display many of the tendencies of heavier reds.
A broad rule of thumb is to match a beer’s intensity to the strength of the seafood. Light table fare often pairs well to lighter beers, while more complex fish dishes require a heartier brew. The flavors of the beer should interact in a way that balances and emphasizes the tastes and preparation of the seafood. Heavy and hearty food preparations tend to do best matched to beers with higher levels of bitterness from hops. For well-seasoned fish, like those blackened or barbequed, a more robust beer should be selected.
A dark ale or an IPA is an excellent match for heavily seasoned seafood. You might want to try matching a more complex beer with similarly intricate seafood preparation, or try sweeter grained beers with fish seasoned with sweet condiments, herbs, and spices. For beers with bitter hops, try pairing them to seafood with a sharp or tangy edge.
More Tips for Artisan Beer Pairing
When marrying artisan beer to seafood, either go with the grain to balance the respective flavors. Or cause a little conflict and clashing with the palate and go against the grain. Artisan beer can be a complex beverage. Brewmasters have a variety of options at their disposal to alter the taste of the final product. This is done by managing the formula of ingredients: grains, barley, hops, malt, yeast, and an almost limitless variety of other additives like fruits, rinds, vegetables, and spices. So when you’re munching on that fried calamari with a tangy Asian dipping sauce, any number of full-bodied beers, like an IPA, might match well with those flavors. Conversely, for a delicate preparation of steamed fluke, a light pale ale might do the trick.
As with wine, you can also ladder beers during a meal, matching to each food course from appetizers to dessert. This typically means moving from lighter beers to darker, more robust beers. A light beer, like a blonde ale, can be enjoyed with appetizers and seafood salads. While more intense beers, such as IPAs and full-bodied ambers and lagers, would pair well to Cajun shrimp; specialty beers can also pair well with dessert. The trick is one of balancing the intensity of food tastes with the complementary flavors of the beer. Neither the seafood nor the beer should be an overpowering influence on the palate. Vary the selection of beer until you hit upon a combination of flavors that works for you. When it comes to one’s taste buds, nothing beats experimentation, and no choice is a bad choice.