Evan S. Benn of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently went on a hunt to find the best beers to pair with sushi. You know the drill, you feel like sushi and usually the only beer options are Sapporo, Asahi or Kirin. These Japanese lagers are fine and all, but how about a drink that’s a little more complex and compliments the delicious raw fish in front of you? Well, here you go:
Every sushi restaurant worth its weight in roe offers a few dozen varieties of raw fish, but the beer selection is rarely so diverse.
On a recent quest to find the best sushi in St. Louis, I kept seeing Sapporo Premium, Asahi Super Dry and Kirin Ichiban – interchangeable rice-based Japanese lagers – on every menu.
“It’s definitely troubling when I go out for sushi, and I’m looking at the beers they have, and it’s like, ‘Really? This is it? I guess I’ll have sake,’ ” says Sean Z. Paxton, a California-based private chef who writes about the intersection of beer and food for Beer Advocate magazine and on his website, homebrewchef.com.
Those Japanese brews aren’t terrible – Paxton agrees they have “clean, neutral” flavors – but they do little to complement and enhance the complexities of a sushi meal.
“With all of those textures and flavors, and the umami elements of soy sauce and perfectly cooked rice, the possibilities of beers to pair with sushi go way beyond Japanese pilsners,” he says.
Paxton looks for beers with a citrus kick to accentuate sushi’s freshness and salinity, and to cut through its creamy, buttery flavors.
Belgian-style witbiers, unfiltered wheat beers spiced usually with orange peel and coriander, provide “a great canvas to highlight raw fish,” he says.
India pale ales aren’t brewed with citrus rinds like witbiers are, but they often give off pronounced aromas of grapefruit, pineapple, lime or green apple, especially ones made with American hop varieties such as Centennial, Cascade and Citra.
The lightly fruity and spicy flavors in IPAs play well against fiery wasabi and fatty tuna. Paxton warns against anything too hoppy or high in alcohol, which could detract from the fish.
If you want to go exotic, seek out Sah’tea, Dogfish Head Brewery’s modern take on a primitive Finnish ale that’s brewed with juniper, black tea, cardamom and ginger; Paxton says the spice blend stands up to the complex saltiness of soy sauce.
Sah’tea incorporates ginger, which is a brilliant pairing with sushi – think about the slivers of pickled ginger that accompany every sushi plate in America. Like cool sorbet in the middle of a multicourse tasting menu, ginger is clean-tasting, slightly prickly on the tongue, dry and refreshing.
I like Hitachino Nest Real Ginger Brew, from Japan’s Kiuchi Brewery, a longtime sake producer that makes some excellent craft beers.
Real ginger root goes into the brew kettle, which spices up the beer’s low-key hops. A good dose of carbonation helps prime taste buds for the next bite of food.
Other ginger-beer options include Good Juju, from Left Hand Brewing Co. in Colorado, and Michelob Ginger Wheat from Anheuser-Busch.
Good Juju has a subtle ginger flavor – think unsweetened Canada Dry Ginger Ale – wrapped in a golden pale ale body. Ginger Wheat, part of last year’s Michelob Spring Sampler Pack, has a flavor more akin to pickled ginger.
If any sushi-restaurant owners are reading, I’d love to see you take a chance on any of these beers. A sushi joint that cares about its beer as much as its fish is one that’s swimming in the right direction.
- Matt Pritchard
That is a great question actually. I don’t have any overriding love of figs, per se, but I’ve found that I enjoy beers brewed with figs for some reason.
After a day of plundering the anime video section at Hastings in Missoula, my brother-in-law, who is visiting along with my sister and their one-year-old boy, and I decided to pop over to Cafe Dolce to see what beer treasures are currently available.
He joked about a $9.75 beer and the fact that I write about these ridiculously expensive beers for the local newspaper. The server kindly explained that the beer came in a larger bottle then he was probably thinking of.
So I ordered one.
It happened to be a Jubilation Ale from Baird Brewing Company in Japan. I’ve tried one Baird before, and I was impressed enough to remember that they brew a number of interesting fruit ales throughout the year. This particular ale happens to be brewed with fresh-picked Japanese figs and cinnamon twigs.
As we delved into conversation about why I like figs, I smelled the rich and hazy nose familiar of a strong-dark ale with a lot of dark fruits and getup malt in the mix. But this beer drinks remarkably light for a beer with a 7.0 ABV and which is plum full of interesting fruit esters and a hint of exotic spice from the cinnamon twigs.
Neither the figs nor the cinnamon twigs are overplayed in this beer. Instead, the initial sweetness and earthiness of the figs sits nicely on a sweet malt body accompanied by very balanced hoppy note that does not even begin to take away from the fruitiness.
As our conversation wended its way among topics such as my age and the obvious connection to figs and other such prune-like helpers of the old and the infirm to Japanese craft brewing, we quietly polished off the bottle in the delightfully big atmosphere at Cafe Dolce. We perused the beer list several times talking about what to try next, but both of us were pretty stuck on a fantastic beer that just so happened to be brewed with figs and cinnamon twigs.