In Acquired Tastes, The Takeout explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.
On an unspecified date, in a small town in southeastern Missouri, a man named Clayton Eftink was contemplating the Corona. More specifically, he was thinking about how the Corona had become associated with the lime and exactly whose idea that was. An avowed Stag lover himself, Clayton wondered what garnish would pair best with his preferred beverage. He eventually landed on the pickle. He dropped the brined vegetable into his next beer and the rest was local history.
This is the story of how people in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, began systematically inserting pickles into their beers—at least according to T.J. Bishop, a Missouri bartender I tracked down to explain this confounding phenomenon.
Earlier in the year, while sucked into the black hole that is Reddit, I encountered a picture of a beer with a pickle tucked inside. The pickle wasn’t perched on the lip of the drink, but plopped aimlessly inside the cup, like an unflushed turd.
I was, for lack of a better term, shook.
Further investigating informed me not only was this a “thing,” it was considered a “Midwestern thing,” a statement I took umbrage to, having lived in Chicago for almost nine years. Even a drinks expert no less esteemed than Jim Meehan—author of Meehan’s Bartender Manual, the man behind New York’s P.D.T., and longtime Midwestern resident—told me he had never heard of someone intentionally supplementing their beer with a pickle.
Now, I was not only shook, but also stuck. Where were all these Midwesterners allegedly perverting their beers with pickles?
I found them on Instagram. A simple search of pickles + beer led me to a treasure trove of pictures of people holding cups of beer with pickles nestled inside. The photos were primarily of college-aged women, all seemingly from South Dakota. I had located the pickle and beer Mecca, right in America’s heartland.
Mallory Schwan, a former employee of a craft beer bar in South Dakota assured me this behavior is common in the Dakotas and that it isn’t necessarily restricted to college students, saying: “College kids drink it more frequently, but they certainly didn’t invent it.”
South Dakota, Mallory told me, is famous for its “pioneer preservation sensibility” and penchant for pickling everything from green beans to watermelon rinds. She says the addition of the pickle works best when it’s “paired with a light domestic lager-style beer, like Bud Light or PBR. The base beer has to have a pretty clean, mild flavor for it to work.”
Alicia Underlee Nelson, author of North Dakota Beer: A Heady History, echoes this sentiment and adds that in North Dakota—a state consistently listed as one of the top-ranking areas for beer consumption—people will occasionally request a splash of pickle juice in their drink. Locals employ the pickle to stir the briny concoction and consume it as a bonus snack after completing the beer.
From a health perspective, there are persuasive arguments to be made for combining pickles and alcoholic beverages. In Poland, revelers use the salty brine as a makeshift hangover antidote. Russian drinkers have been known to punctuate vodka shots with pickled vegetables. Pickle juice is believed to improve digestion and support liver function, so when the Dakotans I spoke with enthusiastically recommended it as a cheap way to prolong day drinking, I was inclined to believe them.
Pickles and beer may be a local favorite in the Dakotas (and in small town western Minnesota where there’s some cultural overlap) but that doesn’t mean you’ll find it on a drink menu. For locals, asking for pickles in your drink is akin to ordering a side of ketchup or an extra helping of Ranch.
As far as I can tell, one of the few establishments to offer pickles and beer as a menu option is Shakespeare’s Pizza in Columbia, Missouri, where T.J. Bishop once served as barkeep. He introduced the Stag and a Pickle combo back in 2008 and current bar manager Ryan Woods confirmed the drink has become “bizarrely iconic.”
Everyone I spoke to assured me that pickles and beer have been shacking up for a while, but you’d have to be obtuse not to notice that pickles are arguably 2017’s It Vegetable, completely usurping kale and avocado as the trendiest green food item.
From pickle-flavored candy canes, to pickleback shots to Pickle Rick, brined cucumbers have seeped into pop culture and our alcohol consumption. And breweries have taken note: this past fall, Barley John’s Brewing Company debuted their Dill Pickle Ale at the Minnesota State Fair (garnished with dill cheese and a dill pickle.)
New Zealand’s Hallertau is one of several breweries to release a pickled gose. The gose—a style of German wheat beer with a light salinity and tartness—is believed to perfectly compliment the pickle’s inherent tang. Stephen Plowman, Hallertau’s Captain of Beer, attributes the successful mash-up to the gose’s salty and tart flavoring. To create their McClure’s Pickle Gose, Hallertau brewers add 20 liters of spicy pickle brine into the beer before allowing lactic acid bacteria to ferment the beer to add further complexity to the drink.
Pickles and beer is an ideal choice for people like me, who fail to appreciate craft beers, but want a cheap (and salty) method of enhancing their go-to beverage. To create the ultimate pickle and beer union, it’s essential to select the correct pickles. Housemade are best and large dill spears are preferred. If a bar’s pickles are inadequate, people have been known to smuggle in their own. The beer should be poured into a pint glass and must be served cold or not at all.
So if you find yourself underwhelmed by your host’s limited beer selection this holiday season, consider politely scrounging the fridge and adding the humble pickle. It may not be the best thing to put in your beer, but it sure is far from the worst.