Of all the world’s adult beverages, beer offers the widest range of flavors for pairing with food. The vast number of taste combinations attained through mixing malt, hops, water, and yeast with an endless list of flavor-enhancing adjuncts go far beyond the finite offerings produced by fermented grapes or alcoholically stunted cocktails. From crisp, citric IPAs paired with spicy foods to roasty, coffee-tinged imperial stouts paired with chocolatey desserts, there’s no dish the right beer can’t find harmony with. Yet there is one suds style that, despite enjoying an all-time peak in popularity, is seldom enjoyed or even thought of in tandem with food — sour beers.
Bracingly acidic and oftentimes fruity, sour beers hit the extreme end of the taste spectrum. Upon first sipping, many drinkers register little more than a Sour Patch Kid–like tartness. As with most alcoholic beverages, however, the more one consumes, the more one is capable of picking up on graceful subtleties: citrus undertones, herbaceousness, hints of peppercorn. Even so, lambics, gueuzes, and the like are typically enjoyed in a nice glass all by their lonesome, like a fine cognac. Even some of the most discerning beerophiles firmly believe these outlandish beers don’t go with food. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sour beers have their place in the pairing pantheon, a fact recently driven home when I was the guest of a quartet of culinary professionals at a casual weeknight sour-beer dinner. Industry friends with equal passion for beer and food, the group convened, coolers in hand, at the home of Pacifica Del Mar executive chef Mark Bolton. What happened next was the finest potluck I’ve ever been party to, leaving the guy who came with only an empty stomach and a notepad with plenty of tips for pairing sour beers with food. These techniques are best illustrated by recapping the night’s offerings.
The dinner kicked off with local halibut from Ritual Tavern chef Brandon Brooks, served with Calrose rice, baby bok choy, bacon, passion-fruit purée, heirloom-tomato relish, and a classic buerre blanc. While this may initially seem to argue for chef-editing, the myriad of components made for numerous tasty flavor combinations within one dish. Paired with Lindemans Cuvée René, a popular variety of gueuze (a blend of Belgian lambics), the passion fruit and heirloom tomatoes made perfect companions, while the beer cut through the richness of the butter sauce and enlivened the inherent flavors of the fresh-caught fish.
Next up were mastodon-like femurs filled with warm, bovine gelatin. That’s right — bone marrow. At first, it seemed too heavy for the graceful, magenta-hued St. Louis kriek selected by the dish’s creator, O’Brien’s Pub general manager Tyson Blake. But all that fatty, beefy decadence was balanced out by the effervescence of the beer. Most impressive, however, was the way the full raspberry flavors of the sour synced with an accompanying sour-cherry gremolata and, not surprisingly, dried cherries that had been reconstituted using the kriek.
Cowboy Star sous chef Colin Murray selected another fruit-infused sour, Rodenbach Grand Cru (a blend of young and old cherry-infused ales aged in oak barrels) to go with the evening’s entrée, venison loin with house-cured bacon, roasted Marcona almonds, fingerling potatoes, and pearl onions. Like Brooks’s starter, this dish was meant to present a wealth of taste combinations; all of which matched up well with the Grand Cru, thanks to the permeating smokiness of the bacon and the roasted ingredients, which enhanced the woodiness of the beer. The natural sweetness of the onions made them surprisingly good go-withs as well.
Rounding things out were Bolton’s spiced apple cupcakes smeared with caramel icing and a sprinkling of sea salt, the perfect foil for Leipziger Gose. A beer rarity, goze is a German sour brewed using malted wheat and sea salt. The sodium notes of the beer give way to a base that offers flavors of straw, lemon, heather, and Gala apple. Given that description, this was an obvious home run.
The night featured delicate fish, hefty meats, and sugary sweets, yet the sour beers not only went with, but in all cases, enhanced each dish. Not bad for a style of beer most believe has no place with food. When thinking of sour beers, it’s easy to focus on the eye-opening acidity, but they have a lot more going for them — fruitiness, woodiness, sweetness, toast…even salt.
When pairing on the home front, find ingredients that either match or play off of such flavors, ingredients that are enhanced by sourness and bright, crisp flavors. And don’t be afraid to stack them against boldly flavored edibles with heavy textures. Sours cut through these like well-honed knives through hot butter.
They may not be entry-level pairing brews, but this dinner proved that sours are solid food companions worth working and warming up to. ■