Seafood is one of the most often talked about subjects in relation to food and beer matching.
Perhaps it is because, like beer, seafood is often consumed in a social setting. We all have our own recollections of wonderful time spent on a holiday past with family and friends consuming prawns and crab by the kilo washed down with (Insert your favourite beer here). Times well spent are those with food you love and a drink you love in anyone’s book. And in my opinion, this is the base starting point to any good match- start with something you want to eat and something you want to drink and follow the natural paths from there.
We often hear talk about basic beer and food matching principles involving the 3 C’s- complement, contrast and cut, but these are more the end result of a match rather than a starting point. In fact for the starting point to any match I believe that ‘contrast’ and ‘cut’ can both be rolled back into the first ‘C’, complement. Ask yourself “how is this drink going to help complement this meal?” In the end it might complement it by means of a contrasting flavour … but still it has got to complement the dish otherwise it could well cause the dreaded 4th C – Clash.
However all this talk is really unnecessary when what we should be thinking about is the dish at hand and how the world of beer might work with it.
Seafood and seafood dishes span a very wide range of flavours from soft and delicate to rich and oily and no one beer is capable of working with all of them. This is especially so when you consider the wide range of ways in which seafood can be prepared and the variety of sauces and condiments with which it may be served.
With all food matches, and seafood in particular, I always take the approach of think light (as in flavour intensity of the beer) and imagine building the beers flavour up from there to the point where it can sit well along side the food without dominating or distracting too much.
An analogy to this might be building up layers of paint from light to dark until the desired shade is reached. Many forms of seafood are quite delicate in their flavour and so it doesn’t take too much aggression from the beer to overpower them at the table. Treading gently is a good idea. Sometimes though, we have to step out of this box and think a touch more laterally about the pairing but I nearly always think in this order when running through a pairing.
Fish matches are an area where we can see a fair range of difference in the chosen beer depending on the flesh type of your fish of choice. With big, white fleshed fish you may whish to go with beers that are not too aggressive in flavour yet still provide some degree of bitterness or acidity without going too rich in either malt or hops. Personal favourites for this are kristalweizens, helles (Munich style pale lagers) or Kolsch style beers. Grilled Barramundi and mango salsa paired with a kristalweizen could be an example of this.
On the other hand, fish that has a darker flesh or higher oil content can be taken further in either or both the malt and hops departments, particularly if the fish has seen the inside of a deep fryer. British-style pale ales and bitters have just the right bitterness to cut through the oil and a malt profile not too over-the-top to play wonderfully alongside the likes of mullet and chips, in my opinion a simple yet highly underrated dish.
The bi-valves (oysters, mussels, scallops) can be a good example of when our gentle build up of flavour may not necessarily be the only way to match. Oysters can be a wonderful pairing with a German-style pilsner as the spicy and herbal hops play against the soft flesh and briny juice of the oyster, but they are possibly at home even more playing out those same flavour notes against an Irish-style dry stout. This match shows all of the briny undertones in the beer while softening its prickly roastiness. The same theory can apply to scallops, perhaps amongst the most delicate of seafood. For years I had been enjoying very soft hefeweizens alongside scallops but a few years ago I by accident discovered the joy of porter with them. I look for porters with a softer roast component and enjoy them alongside barbequed scallops with their roe. This is a combination that doesn’t work quite as well with the roe removed.
At times we must also consider sauces, sides, condiments and other accompaniments served with our seafood and beer feast. Perhaps the most common use of sauces with seafood is with crabs, prawns and lobster. In the case of crabs and prawns this most often seems to be cocktail or seafood sauce. Rich and slightly spicy it can easily sit nicely with Czech pilsners. This style is able to cut through the sauce without distracting from it or overpowering the crustacean beneath. Lobster is often served in a mornay style and here we again need something able to cut through the richer sauce without overriding it or the lobster beneath. In this case we may not need the hops of a pilsner but perhaps a saison where the high carbonation and naturally spicy yeast notes provide the dryness and acidity of to work through the situation.
You might also consider pickled seafood, smoked seafood and the many forms of dishes in which it is used. The same thought processes can be used to match beer with any form of seafood, build up an idea of the beer from lightest flavoured beer you can imagine to the point where its flavour is in sync with the dish. Consider sauces and sides and consider thinking out of the box regarding unusual elements of the dish or perhaps of a potential beer pairing…. smoked beer, sour beer … all could possibly have a place alongside seafood.
Never hesitate to experiment. Some of the best matches – or at least the ones you enjoy the most – are ones that you discover yourself.