While I’m in Denver for the three-day drinking marathon known as the Great American Beer Festival, beer and food have been on my mind even more than they usual are (if that’s possible). Specifically, I’ve been more mindful of the ways a particular beer can draw out a dish’s flavors, or the way that a certain bite can make a beer you’ve had before sing in a new way. I’ve also eaten a dry, plastic-wrapped ham sandwich while standing in a bathroom line drinking whichever hazy IPA was in my tasting glass, so I can say with certainty that not all food-beer pairings are winners.
But at last night’s Paired event—a small event within the festival dedicated to pairing breweries with chefs from across the country—I had a true beer-pairing revelation: sour beers and rich seafood are made for each other.
By sour beers I mean wild ales, or mixed-fermentation beers, or whatever term you prefer to use to describe beer fermented with some “wild” yeasts and bacteria that produce a range of flavors from funky to tart to fruity. The sour beer and seafood pairings I had last night were delicious, one after the other: Funkwerks’ Sauvin Reserve white wine barrel-aged saison with muscat grape juice was an elegant, vinous accompaniment to hamachi crudo. Uinta’s Alpenglow oak-aged golden wild ale played foil to a silky deviled egg with smoked trout roe. And then, the so-crazy-it-actually-worked pairing of the night: Copper Kettle’s Menage Golden Sour alongside a crispy feuille pastry stuffed with decadent sea urchin mousse. Hot damn.
So, why do these sour beer plus seafood match-ups work?
First, the varying degrees of tartness in the sour beers play the part of an acidic portion of the dish. You squeeze lemon on crab cakes for a reason: that brightness is a necessary counter to its buttery richness. Second, a beer fermented with Brettanomyces yeast (as most wild ales are) will have a bit of “funk,” which I tend to perceive as an earthy flavor that connects well with seafood’s inherent brininess. A sip of that earthy beer and a bite of the seawater- briny seafood played up the well, seafoodiness of the seafood in a way that was quite new to me.
I asked chef Benjamin Smart of Big Grove Brewery in Solon, Iowa, and creator of the sea urchin dish, why he came up with it specifically to be eaten alongside the golden sour beer: “When I think of funky beer, my mind immediately went to the funkiness of sea urchin. I enriched the sea urchin with some heavy whipping cream so it’s got a much richer mouthfeel than normal, so I thought the acidity of the beer would cut nicely through that and provide some of that brininess, that lemony character you expect when eating seafood.”
I was picking up what he was putting down. (Literally, I went back for seconds on the sea urchin.) Throughout the Paired event, not only did I stuff my face with all sorts of seafood delicacies—special shoutout to The Lost Abbey’s tequila barrel-aged wild ale paired with a deconstructed smoked salmon lox-and-bagel—but I learned how to pair one of my favorite styles of beer with a whole new category of food. I look forward to trying this in my own kitchen, maybe searing up some scallops and popping open some of my cellared oak-aged sour beers. Though I did promise my liver I’d give it a week to recover from GABF first.