You don’t need us to explain the simple joy of a good beer and a good fish. In fact, we probably couldn’t if we tried. It is a transcendent, otherworldly sense of satisfaction. Shakespeare himself would be lost for words.
What you might not know, however, is that there is a precise science to the pairing of beer and seafood. It isn’t as simple as picking up whatever is on special at Dan Murphy’s and pairing it with whatever you happened to catch that day. Emma Penny from Stomping Ground Brewery in Collingwood gave us a crash course in getting the exact right beer for the exact right seafood.
“Most people really underestimate how much flavours interact with each other, and how much this can affect the overall taste,” she explains. “Some flavours can make each other disappear. Some can make the other astringent and harsh. But sometimes you’ll have two that go together and make an amazing pairing.”
According to Emma, there are three basic principles in the science of food pairing.
1. Resonance - You should be on the lookout for the flavours of the fish and the dressing, and then looking to see if you can find a beer with those same notes. They link up together and complement each other.
“Just the other night, we put on a chargrilled flounder with preserved lemon in the dressing. So we paired with an amber ale which had big notes of lemon,” says Emma. “The flavour just jumped out at you.”
Finding the notes of a beer isn’t always easy. Partially it comes from experience, and knowing how various beers taste. But you can always do some googling if you aren’t sure. There is one sting in the tail with resonance however: too similar, and the flavour will cancel each other out. As with most things, subtlety is the way to go.
2. Contrast - This is when one flavour positively affects the other. Take for instance a carbonated beer. Some fish can be quite oily and sit heavy in your mouth. The carbonation (the bubbliness) of a beer is a contrasting factor. The bubbles scrub your palate clean, removing the coat of oil.
You’re ready for the next bite and you aren’t feeling overly oily or heavy. Yet it pays to be careful here. According to Emma, contrast isn’t far away from jarring. “Bitterness and sourness clash,” she says. “So you don’t want to get this wrong or the meal is a bit unpleasant.”
3. Intensity - Some flavours are stronger and more dominating than others, and you want to match the intensity of the food with that of your beverage.
“I think it might be the most important one,” says Emma. “For example, I wouldn’t pair an imperial stout with a white delicate fish because one will bulldoze the other.”
Again, a lot of this will come from personal knowledge of the particular beer and seafood on the menu, but a quick ask around should give you all you need to know.
This should give you most of what you need to know. But if you’re the kind of person who likes a cheat sheet, Emma’s got you covered. She compiled this list of different seafoods and the various beers that pair well.
So next time you’re enjoying that transcendent moment of a quality seafood meal, raise that perfectly paired beer to Emma, wherever she may be.
We certainly have been!
Darker oily fish
Examples: Tuna, salmon, sardines, anchovies
Which beers: A farmhouse ale such as a Saison.
Why these pair well: Stronger, oily fish calls for more cutting power and brighter flavours - the high carbonation and hop bitterness of a Saison will cut right through and lift all that oil and salt, and the bright acidity of the beer will be like a squeeze of citrus to the fish.
Examples: Barramundi, whiting, flounder, flathead, snapper
Which beers: Often with delicate firm white fish, the dressings and sauces are the real stars of the show. Go for a Pale Ale if you're having fish and chips or an IPA if you're going down the spicy route.
Why these pair well: Biscuity malt in the Pale Ale will echo the flavours of the batter, lighten the dish and give a clean, dry edge that will match up nicely with the dish; when dealing with spicier preparations, the bitterness of a hoppy IPA will cut through spice and refresh the palate with every bite.
Which beers: German Wheat Beer (Weissbier)
Why these pair well: The beer is light enough to not overpower the delicate flavours of shellfish but will stand up to any dressings or sauces. It has a touch of sweetness to match that of the shellfish, especially when grilled or seared, and the beer can add spice to simpler preparations.
Which beers: Irish Stout
Why these pair well: It's a classic combination that dates back centuries in Ireland and the UK, back to when oysters were an inexpensive, working-class meal. The dry, assertive bitterness and roast of the Stout intersects with the brininess and sea flavours of the oysters perfectly.
Which beers: Pilsner
Why these pair well: Crab and lobster meat can be very sweet and rich - a light-bodied, crisp Czech or German Pilsner with some well-developed hop character and bitterness can balance that out.
Which beers: Belgian Gueuze
Why these pair well: Moules Frites (mussels with fries) is the national dish of Belgium and they often steam the mussels in the beer itself! When pairing, the sweetness of the seafood will contrast perfectly with the sourness of the beer. A tart, fruity Sour Ale would also do the job!