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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There is a school of thought that says the goal of a good beer and food pairing is to emphasize umami. Umami is that mysterious fifth flavor that we all experience but often don't know how to recognize. Sometimes described as "savory" or "meaty", umami encompasses a range of flavors that come from proteins and glutamates. Foods that are high in umami include meat, cheese, tomatoes, and mushrooms.
When pairing with sushi one might first be tempted to deal with that sinus-clearing wasabi. But many of sushi's main constituents are big umami providers, including soy sauce, seaweed, and of course raw fish. The best pairings enhance these flavors, in turn toning down the horseradishy heat of any wasabi.
The most common go-to beers for sushi are Japanese rice lagers. While these will work, I recommend that you try bumping up to a proper pilsner. The added bitterness and hops bring out rich salty-sweet and earthy flavors in the dish. Combined with wasabi, the floral character of the Continental hops blossom to fill your mouth—it's a delightfully intense and almost magical combination.
Like a softer version of pilsner, Kölsch-style beers bring out a more subdued salty sweetness. Kölsch rounds out the rough edges that sharper pilsners leave behind. The hoppy floral burst is replaced by an intensification of the yeast-derived fruitiness that is only hinted at when the beer is consumed alone.
Yeast is high in protein and so is also high in umami. It only stands to reason that a yeasty hefeweizen would be a good match to sushi. These beers are light enough to let the dish come through, but have a thick mouthfeel that is not unlike the texture of the fish. Light citric acidity pumps up the saltiness of the soy sauce. Clovey spice plays well with the spicy wasabi. Wheaty sweetness and banana flavors provide a soft bed on which everything rests.
Michael's Beer Picks
Sam Adams Noble Pils: I can only say "WOW!" The sushi and hop combination creates a festival of flowers in your mouth, while still allowing the umami flavors to shine. Hops and carbonation whisk away the fishy fat even when spicy mayonnaise is involved.
North Coast Scrimshaw: More moderately hopped and less bitter, Scrimshaw allows a greater interplay of sweet on sweet. It's still plenty hoppy though, giving a nice counterpoint to the salty soy sauce. And it does stand up to wasabi.
Sünner Kölsch: This is one of the best kölsch beers available in the US. It's delicately balanced, but still firmly bitter. The flavorful yeasty background brings out a refreshing fruitiness when paired with sushi.
Goose Island Summertime: This one is more like a lightly fruity pilsner; crisper, sharper, with more hops and less yeast than Sünner Kölsch. Paired with sushi it gives something in between the floral burst of a pilsner and the fruity softening of a kölsch.
Sierra Nevada Kellerweis: A German-style hefeweizen that is fairly balanced between the banana and spice of the yeast. The cloves tone down the wasabi, allowing the earthy and meaty flavors to come through.
New Glarus Dancing Man Wheat: Another balanced hefeweizen, but this one has a bigger alcohol kick and thicker mouthfeel. It goes toe-to-toe with the fatty-textured raw fish. Wheaty sweetness and subtle, lemony acidity pump up the umami. It's big but still light and refreshing.
What's your favorite beer to pair with sushi?
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.