Editor's Note: We're trying to find the best beers to drink with our favorite foods. Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is here to help.
Whether it's takeout or you've made it yourself, pad thai provides a symphony of flavors. There are fresh, green flavors from scallion, sweetness from sugar and tamarind, and umami from fish sauce, meat, egg, and/or tofu. Peanuts add a nutty inflection, while lime juice brings a bit of balancing acidity. And let's face it, there's some oil to cope with, too. That's a lot to consider when searching for a delicious beverage pairing.
But beer is more than up to the task. Beer has the unique ability to simultaneously provide both complement and contrast to this multifaceted dish. Malty sweetness works in concert with the sweet sauce and is an accentuating foil to umami. Bitterness and carbonation turn up the heat and clear away the oil. Citrusy and herbal hop flavors check in with the green and talk to the tamarind. A bit of yeasty fruit flavor can send the whole thing over the top. But which beers should you buy?
Yeasty beers like hefeweizen, witbier, saison, and golden Belgian ales make perfect partners for pad thai. The combination of yeast and malt gives these beers a pillowy sweetness that is a great match to the dish's sweet side and a counterpoint to the salty/savory. Light citric acidity adds additional balance and pulls out that subtle hint of lime in the dish. These beers also tend to be highly carbonated, giving them extra palate-cleansing power. Saison and strong Belgian ales can work with any variety of pad thai. Witbier is very light and best reserved for meatless versions.
International-style lager (whether Asian, American, or European) offers light, malty sweetness, moderate to low bitterness and a punch of spicy hop flavor. The requisite complementary and contrasting elements are there. American blond ales and cream ales work as well, adding a subtle fruity kick from the use of top-fermenting yeast. Because pad thai can sometimes be heavy, I like something with a bit more heft like a Munich Helles. The mechanics of the pairing are the same, but the beer stands up better to oilier examples of the dish.
American pale ales provide a hoppy approach that is more about contrast than complement. Bitterness and crisp carbonation cut through the sweetness and oil. Citrus flavors emphasize umami, offering a sturdy counterpoint. But those same citrus flavors also play to the light acidity of the dish from the lime, and underlying malt sweetness supports the sauce and keeps the beer from tasting thin.
Michael's Pairing Picks
Unibroue La Fin du Monde: This is my favorite pairing with pad thai. The cotton candy combination of sweetness and yeast that is characteristic of Belgian golden ales stands up and sings with the sauce. Alcohol that is noticeable but not hot works to cleanse the palate.
Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier: German-style wheat beers are a natural tie-in to the fresher flavors in the dish. Wheaty sweetness and banana yeast flavors complement the sweet and savory flavors of the dish.
Wittekerke: Light and refreshing with Belgian yeast flavors of banana and spice, this is everything a witbier should be. A touch of acidity goes well with the lime squeezed over the dish. This beer is delicate, though, so pair it with vegetable or shrimp versions of pad thai—no meat.
Bayerischer Bahnhof Leipziger Gose: I am more and more convinced that Gose is the ideal pairing beer for lighter Thai food. The unique combination of sweet, salt, and acidity in this German beer style touches on every element of the cuisine. Truly one of the more interesting pairings I tasted, accentuating the lime and fish sauce in the dish.
Lagers and Blond Ales
Fulton Lonely Blond: This beer is nice and simple like a lager, with a mild citrus hop that counters the sweetness, and delicately sweet malt plays to it. A perfect balance: it holds its own against the dish, but doesn't overwhelm.
Singha: You've probably tried this combo before. Singha leans a bit to the sweet side, which is a good match for pad thai. There is enough bitterness though to balance both the beer and the food. Spicy hop flavors pick up on the green veggies and any chili paste you've added. It has just enough carbonation to cleanse. Will it blow your mind? No. Will it do the trick? You bet.
Weihenstephaner Original: This pairing is similar to the blond ale and the lager, but everything is bigger in this delicious beer—fuller body, more malty sweetness, and higher levels of bitterness. It works well for heavier versions of pad thai and is especially tasty if you've added meat.
American Pale Ale
Boulevard Pale Ale: A gold medal winner at this year's Great American Beer Festival, this is one of the classics of the style. Bitter but balanced, with bright, grapefruit-flavored hops, it offers a strong, refreshing, but not overpowering contrast to pad thai. It's got enough sweetness underneath the hops that it still speaks to that part of the dish, and the citrus hop flavors latch on to the lime.
Stone Pale Ale: In keeping with the Stone Brewing Co. tradition, this one is a bit more bitter than some other examples of the style. That extra bitterness amps up the chili-sauce spice and counters the sweeter elements of the dish.
What's your favorite beer to drink with pad thai?
About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, the City Pages Hot Dish Blog, and in respected national beer magazines. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint