The popularity of sour and acidic beer styles is showing no sign of slowing. Here, chef Paul Kasten explores the nuances of pairing sour beers with food, and how to work with varying levels of carbonation, sourness and the broad range of flavours to be found in sour beer.
I have said before, and many excellent sommeliers agree, that beer is far more versatile than wine in matching with food due to the broader spectrum of flavours and palate-cleansing power of carbonation.
The category of sour beers alone proves this point. They run the gamut from mildly tart, grainy, and highly effervescent Berliner Weisse, to rich, round, and very tart barrel aged blends. With so many styles, sub-styles, and variation within those styles, wood ageing, mixed cultures, kettle souring, inoculation vs spontaneous fermentation, and on and on, this category presents such a huge variety of flavour profiles that approaching it as a whole is much like asking the question: “How does one pair food with all wine?”
As in pairing food with wine, there are some rules of thumb that can be helpful to keep in mind, however I would encourage readers not to rely solely upon these. Think of them more as a starting point, as there are many other flavour interactions that will take place in any pairing.
When approaching a beer with food pairing in mind, it is often intuition that provides the best starting point. By the time we are old enough to enjoy all that craft beer has to offer, we have a few decades of flavour memory from which to draw.
Trying to be to cerebral about it can muddy the process. If you taste a beer and think that would be great with a roast chicken, you are probably on the right track. Take that starting point, apply a few of the principles below, and find some things you enjoy cooking or eating that fit that context. After all, this is supposed to be fun.
Acid vs Acid
It is generally a good rule of thumb to avoid matching a beverage with a food that is of greater acidity. Pairing a mildly tart beer with an assertive vinaigrette will knock down the acid in the beer, making its acidity seem muted.
It is also important to keep in mind the type of acidity in the beer. More rounded sour flavours contributed by lactobacillus may be quite easily overwhelmed by the acetic acid of a vinegar-based dressing. A beer with a strong acetic note, generally derived from slow oxidation in the barrel ageing process may possess a similar overall pH, but have a sharpness to its sour flavour that makes it better equipped for such a pairing.
Beers with a lactic profile also lend themselves well to pairing with a tart goat cheese, for example, their sourness being derived from very similar acid-producing bacteria.
Acid vs Fat
An acidic beverage will cut through a good deal of richness in a dish. This coupled with carbonation makes sour beer especially good at cleansing the palate after a bite of rich food.
Keep in mind the level of maillard in your beer and food to keep the interaction an overall pleasant one. A good example from the wine world would be a bright, crisp champagne paired with a rich, white wine based butter sauce. A bright, acidic, and pale sour beer would have the same effect.
At the other end of the spectrum, a rich dish with more maillard and caramelisation involved would lend itself better to pairing with a beer that has those properties.
Bitter vs Rich
Tannins – bitter compounds derived from wood contact – play a large role in the general rule that darker, richer foods tend to match best with bigger, more assertive wines. In sour beer this is also the case.
Richer sour ales that have spent considerable time on oak will work against a rich piece of beef, for example, much the way a big Cab Sauv would. Think of a big, rich, woody Flanders red ale with a steak and a rich reduction sauce.
Acid vs Sweet
In pairing sour beers with sweeter foods, you will find that a bit of acidity in your beer will help to cut through the sweetness of the dish. Be mindful that the beer will need to have some richness and residual sugar if you are pairing it with something along the lines of chocolate, so this is not by any means a catch-all.
Carbonation vs Fat
Carbonation in beer has the ability to help cut through rich, fatty foods. The simplest example of this may be a pilsner paired with a bite of fried food, but working in tandem with the acidity of sour beers, the ability to cut through that mouth coating richness is amplified.
As always, keep in mind other basic principles/approaches to food pairing that apply to all categories of beer and beverages. Complimentary vs contrasting flavours, balancing richness and intensity, etc, and try to avoid over-complicating things.
The more flavours you put on the plate, the more interactions there will be between the food and beverage, and the more likely you are to introduce a couple of flavours that are not compatible. When it comes to creating a great match with the beverage already in mind, less is more.
To illustrate a bit of this, I have chosen three sour beers and will discuss my approach to creating a dish to match with each. The Boatrocker and Rodenbach beers are readily available for you to go out and try, while the Commons Myrtle is an old favourite of mine.
Commons Myrtle, a Tart Farmhouse Ale with Meridian Hops
Paired with a citrus and fennel salad, farro, watercress, soft goat cheese, beets, citrus vinaigrette.
NB: A saison with a lemony flavour profile could act as a substitute.
A citrusy, grain-based salad pairs nicely with this tart, kettle-soured saison finished with lemony Meridian hops. The tang of a soft goat cheese will also be a great compliment to the moderate lactic sourness of the beer, with peppery watercress bringing the greener hop flavours forward, and the soft sweetness of the beets, burnt honey in the vinaigrette, and graininess of the farro tying nicely into the malt profile.
Vinaigrette: burnt honey, orange juice, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, neutral oil, olive oil
Place honey in a pan over medium heat and cook until it just begins to smoke. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients. Salt to taste.
Citrus: Peel and cut segments of orange and grapefruit
Beets: Poach or roast until tender. Peel and slice or wedge. Toss with a small amount of the vinaigrette to marinate.
Farro: Bring to a boil in salted water. Cook until tender. Drain and rinse.
Fennel: Remove tough outer layer with a vegetable peeler. Shave thinly across the grain on a mandoline.
Place all ingredients but the cheese in a bowl and salt to taste. Toss with the vinaigrette and transfer to a plate or bowl. Garnish with knobs of cheese.
Boatrocker Miss Pinky Raspberry Berliner Weisse
Paired with an American-style Thanksgiving dinner for two featuring slow cooked turkey drumsticks, brussels sprouts, buttery mash, gravy.
Due to the moderate level of caramelisation and maillard, this dish, while fairly rich, will not clash with the soft, grainy malt backbone of the beer. Its acidity and full berry flavour will help to cut through the richness of the dark meat, mash, and gravy, much the way the typical side of cranberry sauce served in the US would. But unlike the cranberry sauce, so often pushed to the side of the plate, everyone will actually partake of the beer.
Turkey: Sear golden brown in oil. Add a few handfuls of mirepoix and brown them, followed by a few smashed garlic cloves, a few sprigs of thyme and leaves of sage, and a teaspoon of black peppercorns.
Add a few cups of good chicken stock, generously salted, and bring to a simmer. Cover pan and bake at 180 degrees about 90 minutes, or until meat is tender and pulling away from the bone.
Brussels: Halve and sear in a generous amount of butter on high heat. When colour starts to develop, stir and transfer to the oven to cook through. Finish with a generous hit of salt and a good squeeze of lemon.
Mash: Halve or quarter potatoes, skin on, and simmer in salted water until cooked through. Drain, and mash with warm milk, melted butter, salt and pepper.
Gravy: When turkey is finished, strain off a cup of the braising liquid. Make a blond roux, add the strained liquid and a touch of cream or milk. Bring to a simmer to thicken. Adjust salt and season with black pepper.
Rodenbach Grand Cru
Paired with a F.O.S. Burger – Wagyu smash patty, brioche bun, grain mustard aioli, caramelised onion puree, emmental, crispy onions, baby iceberg.
I generally try to avoid perpetuating the stereotype that beer should ultimately be enjoyed with pub food. This misconception feeds the broader notion of beer as an unsophisticated workingman’s drink, a poor man’s counterpart to wine. With that said though, it is also important to occasionally take a deep breath and stop taking all of this beer stuff so seriously.
This rich, wintery burger, focused on the flavours of French Onion Soup, will pair very nicely with Rodenbach Grand Cru: tart, rich, oaky, and with enough residual sugar to tie into the caramelisation and maillard that the burger brings to the table.
With the exception of the aioli, there to provide a bit of balance within the dish itself, each component is designed to build the big, rich, sweet flavours we are looking for to compliment the beer. If you’d like to try taking this a step further, reduce a bottle of the Grand Cru slowly to syrup, and add it to the caramelised onion puree. It will add a softly tart, woody background to the puree that will tie the pairing together.
Onion puree: Slowly caramelise sliced brown onion in oil. Add a bit of very rich stock or glace and puree. Salt to taste.
Aioli: Make or purchase aioli. Mix in a paste of confit garlic. Add a large amount of grain mustard, and a touch of dijon to round out the mustard flavour.
Patty: I like about a 170gm patty for a bun-width burger that has the thickness to be nicely cooked to medium-rare without being so large you feel like you’ve entered an eating contest. A nice wagyu mince will lend added richness and beefiness that will make the pairing great.
Form your meat into balls and season liberally with salt. Place on a very hot pan or griddle. With a spatula and another sturdy tool pound into a patty. This will ensure great surface contact and crust on your burger. Cook about ninety seconds to two minutes on the first side to form that crust, then about thirty seconds on side two before topping with about 30gm sliced cheese and transferring to a hot oven to melt. This will yield a nicely pink patty with a delicious crust.
Bun: Toast cut side in butter. Place in oven for a minute to heat through while you are searing your burgers.
Crispy onions: Slice brown onions thinly on a mandoline. Cover with neutral oil in a large pot and bring rapidly up to a simmer. Cook, stirring frequently, until onions are golden and crisp. Drain on paper towel and salt to taste.
Assembly: Liberally spread aioli on both sides of the bun. Top with baby iceberg leaves salted and tossed with a bit of lemon juice and olive oil. Add burger patty, and top with a generous handful of crispy onions.
There you have it. I hope this serves as a good starting point for understanding sour beer and food pairing. I highly encourage you to try these beers if you haven't, and to take some time to explore and learn more about the many styles of sour beers available to us and how great they are with food.
You can read about Paul, whose own adventures in beer and food pairing starting in Portland before he moved to Melbourne in this article. He now heads up The Spotted Mallard kitchen. If you'd like to get in touch with Paul, drop him a line.