How to pair sour beer and funky wild ales with seafood dishes

While I’m in Denver for the three-day booze marathon known as Great American Oktoberfest, beer and food are on my mind even more than usual (if that’s possible). Specifically, I’ve been paying more attention to how a particular beer can bring out flavors in a dish, or how a certain bite can make a beer you’ve had before sing in a new way. I also ate a dry-cured, plastic-wrapped ham sandwich while standing in the toilet queue drinking Fuzzy IPA was in my tasting glass, so I can say with certainty that not all 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 real eye-opener about beer pairings: sour beers and rich seafood are made for each other.

By sour beers, I mean wild beers, or mixed-fermentation beers, or whatever term you prefer to use to describe beer fermented with “wild” yeasts and bacteria that produce a range of flavors from funky to tangy through fruity. The sour beer and seafood pairings I had last night were delicious, one after the other: the saison of barrel-aged white wine from Funkwerks Sauvin Reserve with muscat grape juice was an elegant accompaniment and vinous hamachi crudo. Uinta’s Alpenglow Oak Aged Golden Wild Ale played foil over a silky deviled egg with smoked trout roe. And then, the oh-so-crazy pairing of the night really worked: Copper Kettle’s Golden Sour Menage alongside crispy puff pastry stuffed with a decadent sea urchin mousse. Damn hot.

So why do these sour beer and seafood combinations work?

First, the different degrees of acidity of sour beers play the role of a sour part of the dish. You squeeze lemon on crab cakes for a reason: that shine is a necessary counterbalance to its buttery richness. Second, a beer fermented with Brettanomyces yeast (as most wild beers are) will have a bit of “funk”, which I tend to perceive as an earthy flavor that connects well with the inherent brine of seafood. A sip of that earthy beer and a mouthful of seawater- brined seafood played well, seafood 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 made it specifically to be eaten with golden sour beer: “When I think of funky beer, my mind immediately went to the funkiness of sea urchin. I spiked the sea urchin with heavy whipping cream so it had a much richer mouthfeel than normal so I figured the acidity of the beer would cut that nicely and provide some of that briny, lemony character you expect when eating seafood.”

I picked up what he put down. (Literally, I flipped for a few seconds on the sea urchin.) Throughout the paired event, not only did I stuff my face with all sorts of seafood delicacies – a special homage to aged wild beer cask tequila from The Lost Abbey paired with a deconstructed salmon lox-and-bagel smoked beer, but I’ve learned to pair one of my favorite styles of beer with a whole new food category. Can’t wait to try this in my own kitchen, maybe grab some scallops and crack open some of my oak-aged sour beers. Although I promised my liver that I would give it a week first to recover from GABF.

Dino S. Williams