Beer Pairings: What to Drink with Corned Beef and Cabbage

Beer Pairings

Beer and food are better together.

Editor's Note: We're trying to find the best beers to drink with our favorite Serious Eats recipes. Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is here to help.

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[Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

This is the week for corned beef braised with carrots, potatoes, and cabbage. Even though there's not much corned beef eaten in Ireland, this dish (paired with a green-tinted lager) is the quintessential American expression of all things Irish on St. Paddy's day. If you're not going green, what should you drink with this meal?

I love the stuff, but let's face it; corned beef isn't a powerfully flavorful dish. You get the salty-sweet meat, the sugary-sweet carrots, and the vaguely sweet and slightly vegetal-bitter cabbage. It requires lighter-flavored and thinner-bodied beers so it won't be overpowered.

Beer Pairing Pointers

In keeping with the Irish-American nature of the dish and the "if it grows together it goes together" pairing mantra, stick with the traditional beer styles of the Emerald Isle and surrounding areas, but try examples from both the old country and the new. Beers with nitrogen-gas widgets work especially well. The nitrogen gas smooths carbonation and lightens flavors, making for a better food-to-beer intensity match.

Dry Irish stouts are a great place to start. Despite the common belief that they are thick and heavy, Irish stouts are lightweights in both body and flavor. Their main characteristic is an almost acrid roast-malt bitterness. This offers a great counterpoint to the salty corned beef and sweet carrots. Irish stouts, especially those with a nitrogen widget, have a thin, delicate mouthfeel. The thin beer meets the simple steamed veggies on even terms.

Scottish ales offer a less bitter option that highlights the subtle sweetness in the dish. The rich, caramel malt absolutely sings with the carrots and even adds a light sugary touch to the cabbage. The sweeter beer contrasts the corn beef's saltiness and calls attention to its sweeter side. As with the stout, a beer with a widget will make for a more even match.

Irish red ale gives you the best of both the stout and the Scottish ale, with caramel up front and a bit of roast on the way out. You get both the complementary sweetness and the contrasting bitterness. The hops are a bit stronger, but the herbal and grassy flavors work well with the simple spicing of the dish. Irish red ale was my favorite pairing.

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Michael's Beer Picks

Irish Stout

Murphy's Irish Stout: I prefer Murphy's stout over Guinness because it offers just a bit more sweetness and a slightly more substantial mouthfeel. It lacks that trademark sour "Guinness tang," increasing drinkability. The nitrogen widget in the can gives it a creamy mouthfeel that makes it seem fuller-bodied than it really is. The dry roastiness enhances the saltiness of the cured meat.

North Coast Old No. 38: Bottled stouts without the nitro widget tend to be fuller-bodied and sweeter. While still light, dry, and roasty, Old No. 38 is more flavorful, exhibiting intense chocolate, molasses and licorice notes. It matches the dish in similar ways to the Murphy's—bitter roast to bitter veggies, enhanced saltiness in the beef —but the sweetness can also talk to the carrots. However, the bigger flavor in this beer is almost more than the dish can handle.

Scottish and Scotch Ale

Belhaven Scottish Ale: This authentic Scottish ale is caramel-sweet and smooth with just a kiss of hop bitterness to keep it balanced. The beer's sweetness brings out the sweeter side of the meat and veggies. Choose the widget can over the bottles. The smoother mouthfeel and lighter flavor make it a better intensity match to the dish.

Odell 90-Shilling: A slightly higher alcohol version of Scottish ale, 90-Shilling is rich with caramel-malt sweetness that is just balanced by moderate bitterness. The standard carbonation leaves it fuller-bodied and sweeter, but it's still light enough that it doesn't overpower the dish.

Irish Red Ale

Porterhouse Red Ale: The real deal from Dublin, it features deliciously subtle caramel flavors with herbal hops and moderate bitterness to balance. This is a true session beer that is light bodied with a slightly thin mouthfeel that perfectly matches the weight of the food. For both flavor and heft, this is my #1 pairing pick.

Boulevard Irish Ale: This one is fuller and less subtle than the Porterhouse Red. The caramel is sweeter. The roasty bite at the finish is stronger. The mouthfeel is thicker. It's bigger, but not so big that the dish can't handle it.