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.
In many households it's turkey at Thanksgiving and ham at Christmas. For my family that nearly always means a ham that's succulent and honey-glazed. The sweet/savory combination of salt, smoke, porcine richness, and caramelized honey make for a pretty delicious meal. Of course, I like to make it even better with beer.
Which beer, though? My primary advice is to steer toward lighter flavors, but not so light as to be beaten down by the meat. Choose beers with some body and sweetness to stand up to the pungent pork. Fruity and spicy yeast flavors are ham's best friends. They partner well with the glaze and the smoke. A light touch of roasted malt will emphasize smoke and umami, but a light touch is all you want.
Wheat beers are an excellent partner for ham, especially the yeasty European varieties like witbier and hefeweizen. Wheat malt gives these beers a soft, bready sweetness that latches onto the honey glaze and also pulls a bit of sweetness from the pork. And you won't find a better counterpoint to the salt. The characteristic clove-like flavor of these beers is closely related chemically to the flavor of smoke. The two play off each other without quite being the same. Effervescent carbonation and the lightest touch of acidity clear your palate, setting you up for your next bite.
Belgian Tripels absolutely sing with honey glazed ham. Sweeter versions of the style often have flavors reminiscent of the syrup that comes with canned peaches, so drinking a tripel with ham is like putting sweet fruit compote on the meat. It's a stellar complement to the glaze and an even better contrast to the salt. Like with the hefeweizen, spicy yeast flavors give a tasty tie-in to the smoke. Alcohol gives these beers added palate-cleansing power.
Schwarzbier offers a different approach to this pairing that tastes so quintessentially "German" it will have you donning dirndls and lederhosen. The graham-cracker sweetness of pilsner malt emphasizes the salty, cured character of the meat. Subtle smoky flavors from the judicious use of roasted malts are a perfect match to those same flavors in the meat. A clean, crisp lager finish leaves your mouth feeling fresh.
Michael's Beer Picks
Franziskaner Weissbier: The sweetness of wheat malt in this beer both counters the ham's saltiness and complements the honey glaze. It really sings with bites of ham that have an extra bit of glaze. The spicy, clove-like flavors from the yeast are awesome with the smoky ham.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Weizen: Does it get any better than this? I don't think so. This beer has all the best character of hefeweizen with an ample dose of smoke. When you eat the ham, you think of the beer. When you drink the beer, you think of the ham. They are the liquid and solid state of the same thing. Try this pairing!
Dark Horse Sapient Trip Ale Belgian Tripel: This sweet-leaning beer has nice canned-peach fruitiness that grabs hold of the honey glaze of the ham while giving a nice contrast to the salt. A dry finish combined with lively bubbles and a bit of alcohol clears away any lingering fats.
Tripel Karmeliet: An unusual tripel in its airy lightness and orange-citrus overtones, Karmeliet is a less forceful match. The cotton-candy and spice yeastiness still does the job tying into the smoke and the honey on the ham.
Köstritzer: Schwarzbiers are like pilsners, but with a touch of roast. Lacking the sweet honey hook to catch the glaze, it works instead with the smoke and the salt. The pairing emphasizes umami, and it works.
Sprecher Black Bavarian: This beer is a wee bit richer and roastier than Köstritzer, but every bit as good with the ham. It's got the same smoke and salt to start out, with a crisp, lager finish to cleanse your palate.
Those are my picks, but clearly there are more great options. What's your favorite beer to drink with ham?
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