October 18, 2019

Fishy Brews: A Guide to Pairing Seafood and Artisan Beer

Written by Angelo Peluso

I grew up in an Italian American household where wine was as much a part of a dinner meal as the food. Back then wine was never "store bought" but rather a homemade vintage from my grandfather's cellar. I would often help my father and grandfather make the wine each fall. Although that effort took some time away from fishing, it was a rite of passage in my family. It seemed as if Grandpa's multi-grape blend matched perfectly to all the food we ate. With grapes and wine in my blood from an early age, it is no surprise that I eventually developed a fondness for pairing the nectar of the gods with my taste for all cuisine, including fish and broader categories of seafood. I have always enjoyed experimenting with food and beverages and I have always had a very willing palate and an open mind toward any and all forms of sustenance. A few years back I experienced a surprising change of pace that involved the enjoyment of craft beers produced by local Long Island micro-breweries, beers which match perfectly to my equally insatiable appetite for local seafood.

The process of bringing artisan beer to the dining table is an enjoyable one. This journey of discovery for me began with sushi and sashimi. The prevailing wisdom of pairing that form of Japanese table fare with a beverage has typically focused primarily on sake and light white or sparkling wines.  When dining at a BYOB sushi restaurant I would often match that cuisine to a Champagne, a Prosecco-style wine, a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay. Any of those wines always complimented my choice of tuna, salmon, yellowtail, fluke, squid, octopus and eel. Happy and content, I had found what I believed to be the perfect combination of food and beverage. That is, until I decided to give another drink a try- a beverage brewed mainly from barley, grains, hops, yeast and water: beer. Since "country of origin" beers don't always match best with foods from that region, I stayed with some traditional Japanese lagers like Sapporo, Kirin Ichiban and Asahi. Then at one dining session, a waitress at a local Long Island sushi establishment suggested I try a Japanese microbrew: a craft beer called Hitachino produced by Kiuchi Brewery. As the comedian used to say, that brew was simply "mahvelous" and it opened a new window for me on matching beer with seafood. A necessary process of experimentation and mandatory tasting eventually lead me to the micro-breweries, craft beers and brewpubs of Long Island and New York: natural partners for the ocean's bounty of fresh seafood. 

New York State and Long Island are rich in their offerings of artisan and microbrews. This region has literally scores upon scores of micro and nano-breweries as well as many brewpubs. In comparison to large commercial beer companies, a micro-brewery is a small independent producer of limited beer for local or regional consumption. The threshold for the "micro" regional designation is production volume of less than 15,000 barrels of beer annually, 75% of which is typically sold off-premises. A brewpub is a restaurant that brews beer onsite for sale within the establishment to its customers, and limited sale usually in the form of growlers. One other class of small beer production is the nano-breweries. As the name implies, "nanos" are extremely small producers, often with beer yields between 4 and 10 gallons. Regardless of the category of producer, these small-scale operations make intimate, innovative and quality brews that strongly reflect consumer preferences and tastes. Some microbrews have grown beyond the boundaries of their relatively small size to become major forces in the beer industry. While the micros may be small by comparison to the commercial mega-breweries, they are big when it comes to the quality and taste of the craft beers they produce. 

All beers can be classified as either ales or lagers with sub-categories within each group. In very general terms some of the best beer styles to pair with seafood are ambers, dark ales, light or pale ales, pilsners, lagers, stouts and wheat grain beer. Variations in 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 - 24 months. That adds a different dimension of taste to beer, similar to how oak barrels age Chardonnay. 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 would be considered medium bodied; and lastly, stout and porter would for the most part be of the heavy-bodied beer category. Yet, there can be some 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. 

Within those classifications are a few principles to get you started on the journey of finding the perfect marriage of seafood and beer. Recognize that 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 go best. Seafood like smoked fish, grilled or barbequed fish, and shellfish like oysters, clams and mussels (either in a white broth or prepared marinara) will complement well with 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 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. These beers also accompany shellfish well. Wheat beer, brewed with wheat and malted barley, is often described as being silky, clean and crisp, and is especially good with grilled shrimp, prawns, crawfish, as well as grilled, baked and fried fish. In the concluding analysis, you are not only matching the taste of a fish species to a particular beer but also pairing to the way in which the seafood is prepared.     

Connoisseurs of fine food and aficionados of brewed beverages will often tell you that beer may actually be a more versatile drink than wine for matching with food, especially seafood. This belief stems from the fact that the primary ingredient in wine is a grape varietal or a blend of grape types, but with beer you can mix and match grains, hops and other flavorful additives like spices and the rinds of various fruits. When comparing beer to wine for purposes of pairing with food, it is further suggested that lagers compare favorably with lighter white wines while ales tend to display many of the tendencies of heavier reds. Although there are some general guidelines for pairing beer and seafood, like most other things in life, it all comes down to personal taste and preferences. That said, there are a few considerations to bear in mind when enjoying beer with seafood.

A broad rule of thumb is to match a beer's intensity to the strength of the seafood. Simply put, that means 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 more seasoned fish, like blackened or barbequed striped bass for example, a more robust beer should be selected - a dark ale or an IPA would be an excellent match for the 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 sweeter condiments, herbs and spices. For beers with bitter hops, try pairing them to seafood with a sharp or tangy edge.

When pairing beer with fish or 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'.  Beer can be a complex beverage. Brewmasters have a variety of options at their disposal to alter the taste of the final product by managing the formula of ingredients: grains, barley, hops, malt, yeast and an almost unlimited variety of other additives like fruits, rinds, vegetables and spices. So when you are 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. The converse is that with a delicate preparation of steamed fluke, for example, 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 and 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; there are also beers that 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. This is where trial and error comes into play. By trying different combinations of beer with specific seafood you will eventually find those matches that personally please your palate. Practice and experimentation are not only a fun aspect of beer pairing but a wonderful learning experience as well, one that will enhance of fish and seafood. Like their renowned winery counterparts that now produce some your enjoyment of the finest wines in the United States, New York microbreweries and brewpubs have earned a well-deserved reputation for producing high quality and flavorful beers. Many have been recognized with significant industry awards. Independent craft beer brewers produce a diverse and creative range of brews that are ideal for complementing foods of all varieties, including seafood. As the old TV commercial once stated: "Try it, you'll like it".