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.
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The general rule when pairing beer with desserts is to keep the beer sweeter than the dessert. But of course, rules are meant to be broken. While sweet-to-sweet match-ups are nice, s'mores are such a super-saccharine treat that this approach can easily become too much. The bitterness brought by roasted malts or coffee provide a tasty counterpoint to all that sugar. Beers with a bit of fruit and acidity will also work. In either case, though, an ample amount of residual sugar is still required or those contrasting flavors come off as harsh.
A Belgian Quadruple is a perfect match for this summer bonfire classic. The high levels of residual sugar are more than enough to stand up to the intense sweetness of s'mores. Notes of chocolate and dried fruits add interesting depth to the pairing. Massive alcohol and a medium-dry finish offer some welcome relief from all that gooey richness.
To amplify the sweet s'more flavors, another option is to go with a chocolate stout. While it sounds like too much chocolate, there is just enough roasty bitterness in the beer to maintain some balance. But you need to choose a stout that's big, sweet, and boozy. A lesser beer just ends up tasting thin and chalky.
Sweet versions of fruit lambics are great with any dessert containing chocolate. (Think raspberry truffle or chocolate ganache cake with raspberry puree.) The zip and zing of fruity acid cuts through the amped-up sugar to bring some welcome balance. But these beers are back-sweetened so they have enough sugary oomph to hold their own.
Coffee and Imperial stouts provide a bitter balance. Desserts that work with coffee also work with coffee stout. The coffee's bitterness is great for cutting through the sweet. Imperial stouts work similarly, with the coffee flavors and bitterness coming from roasted malts instead of actual coffee. Chocolate notes add a needed tie-in. If you're like me and you prefer your marshmallows burnt, these beers provide the perfect mirror to that charred sugar taste. But as with the beers above, you need a bigger, sweeter version of either to stand up to s'mores. Too much bitterness, especially from hops, will make the beer seem harsh.
Michael's Beer Picks
Boulevard Sixth Glass Quadruple Ale: The combination of the beer's sugary sweetness, chocolate, and dried fruits with the s'mores brought out interesting flavors that weren't apparent in either by itself. High alcohol cut through the sweetness.
La Trappe Quadruple: I call this "candy beer." It's strong and sweet with luscious, raisiny dark-fruit flavors. The cotton-candy character of Belgian yeast combines seamlessly with the melted marshmallow.
Southern Tier Choklat: At around 10 percent alcohol this is a bruiser of a chocolate stout. It's like drinking dark chocolate syrup from the bottle. It's more than sweet enough to hold its own against s'mores. The combination is total chocolate overload, and that's a good thing.
Sweet Fruit Lambic
Lindemans Framboise: By itself Lindemans Framboise drinks like raspberry soda-pop; pink, fizzy, and sweet with just a touch of tart in the background. In combination with s'mores, though, the acidity is amplified, making it a great contrast to the saccharin sweet.
Timmermans Strawberry Lambic: Easy-drinking and refreshing, Timmermans lambics have a bit more acid and funk than Lindemans, but only a bit. It's still plenty sweet to work with s'mores. Strawberry is a softer fruit than raspberry, giving the combination a little less tang.
Coffee and Imperial Stout
Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout: This was the best pairing of our test. It provided one of those revelatory food/beverage experiences. The combination was a study in both complement and contrast. Cappuccino Stout is a big beer with plenty of residual sugars to stand up to the dessert. The coffee was bold and bitter enough to cut through both. The combination revealed barleywine-like flavors that sent the pairing over the top.
Surly Darkness: Despite its cult status, I'm not a fan of this beer by itself. It's too thick and syrupy for my palate. But that's just what's needed with s'mores. It has the dark and bitter roastiness to contrast and the residual sugars to complement. Chocolaty flavors help to hold the pairing together.
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.