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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Thai beef salad is a great beer pairing challenge. There are so many flavors bouncing off one another in this dish that it's difficult to know how to approach it. There's citric acidity, salty/fishy/beefy umami, and herbal notes from fresh mint and basil, and riding on top of it all is the chili pepper heat.
A hop-heavy pairing creates a feedback loop in which hops amplify spice and vice versa. Look for beers with more hop flavor than bitterness. Caught in that loop, a little bit of bitter goes a long way. I prefer the spicy continental hops with the dish, but some citrusy American hop flavors will pick up the lime in this salad quite nicely. Malty richness helps to calm the heat and bring out the dark flavors of the meat and fish sauce.
Pilsners are a great way to play with that hop/spice amplification. The spicy and floral flavors of Continental hops are pumped up by the the basil, cilantro, and mint in the salad. There's enough bitterness to heat things up, but not so much that it becomes harsh.
Dortmunder Export is golden lager option that offers a bit more balance. You still get the feedback, but fuller body and beefier malt keep the volume below eleven. To keep it even tamer, choose a dark American lager. Added caramel pulls out the darker flavors and lower hopping rates lessen the intensity.
To make your approach from the malty side, I suggest German wheat beers. The hopping on these beers is so low that there is almost nothing for the dish to amplify. They envelop the food in soothing, wheaty sweetness, while fruity and spicy yeast flavors offer alternating complementing and contrasting notes. Gose (pronounced GO-suh) is a little-known German wheat beer style that is a must-try with this dish. Brewed with coriander and salt and finished with a lactic fermentation, it has flavors that meld almost seamlessly with the salad.
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Michael's Beer Picks
Sam Adams Noble Pils: Subtle malty sweetness doesn't dampen the spice-on-spice amplification. This beer utilizes all five of the European hop varieties that care called "noble" for their superior aromatic qualities. The spicy, herbal, and floral flavors of those hops match the herbs in the dish one-for-one. I really like this pairing.
Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold: This beer has a bit more body and malt sweetness to keep the hop/spice chorus in check. Think of it as a meaty golden lager; still light enough to hit the light flavors of the dish, but heady enough to take on the beef.
Grain Belt Nordeast: Grain Belt Premium with some caramel is what this is. It definitely leans to the sweet side, with just a bit of hop presence.
German Wheat Beers
Bayerischer Bahnhof Leipziger Gose: This is far and away the best pairing I found for the Thai beef salad. Lactic tartness picks up the acidity of the lime juice. Salt meets the meat and the fish sauce head on. Floral coriander converses with the cilantro, mint, and basil. Wheaty malt tames the heat. The two simply meld in my mouth.
Ayinger Bräu Weisse: This is my second favorite pairing with this dish. The Ayinger hefeweizen favors the spicy side of the yeast flavor spectrum, making it a good match to the herbal/spicy character of the salad. Light lemony acidity brought out the lime in the marinade. Subtle caramel in the background gives support to the dish's darker flavors. A solid pairing.
What beers would you try with this dish?
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.