I am always disappointed when I go out to a Japanese Restaurant and feel the urge to order an interesting beer with my sushi. Way more often than not, these places will have a small selection of Asian rice lagers like Asahi Super Dry, Sapporo Premium and sometimes unsatisfying macro beers like Kokanee or Coors Light. As a craft beer fan I can never bring myself to order a beer in these places, instead I am forced to get take out and try to come up with more interesting food and beer pairings at home. In this article I will outline my recent experience pairing takeout sushi and Canadian craft beers while suggesting some alternative options for you to try as well, hoping that one day that these types of craft beer options will find their way into our favourite Japanese restaurants.
First Pairing – What Gose with Gyoza?
For starters and appetizers, Japanese restaurants usually have a variety of options including Edamane, Sunomono, Seafood Salad, Miso Soup, Tempura and other options like Gyoza. Personally I prefer to start with some fried or steamed pork Gyoza before I enjoy my sushi . I actually got my pairing idea by chance simply because of the similarities of the names at first, choosing a Gose style beer from Driftwood Brewery in Victoria, British Columbia which is aptly named Gose-Uh. What started as a bit of a joke really made sense after I put some thought into it and I am very glad that I chose this style of beer to start with. Now in case you were wondering, a Gose is an unusual style of wheat beer that has salt (or salt water) added to it and carries a lemon tartness characteristic if made correctly.
The Results – This particular pairing worked really well because sipping the beer before eating a Gyoza had the same effect as salting meat, which brought out the rich flavors in the pork more profoundly while calming the salty Gose a little bit and highlighting the lemon tartness of the beer. Alternate choices would be a Dark Lager or even a Stout for the Gyoza, however I didn’t want to blow my palate before I ate the sushi so I though this worked well.
Second Pairing – Don’t Overpower Your Nigiri Sushi or Sashimi with a Heavy Beer
Likely the main reason that many Japanese restaurants don’t offer anything other than rice or macro lagers is their Nigiri sushi, which is a slice of raw fish placed on rice or Sashimi where you skip the rice altogether and just eat the raw fish. This is a dish you do not want to over power or take away from because it generally is the highlight of a good sushi meal. It is because of this that I chose Mill Street’s Organic Lager from Toronto, Ontario as my beer pairing, which although not the most amazing beer out there is a decent craft pale lager that is better that the macro offerings and has a nice mix of sweet honey, grains and hints of lemongrass in it. With each selection of my Nigiri Sushi I would take a sip of the beer, eat a bite, sip some more and then finish the piece with some soy sauce and a touch of wasabi to explore the pairing properly.
The Results – The beer really cut into the fatness of the fish, enriching the flavour of the meat while also concurrently enhancing the beer to the point where it was quite enjoyable as the malts came out way more when paired with the salty fish, it also slightly toned down the wasabi. As an alternate I would hesitate to go with anything beyond a basic lager here, perhaps a very mild Witbier or basic Wheat Ale but nothing overly intense otherwise you will overpower the subtle flavours in the raw fish. This is also why I prefer to eat it before my rolls which can be a bit more intense.
Third Pairing – IPAs and Spicy Rolls are a Hot Topic
IPA’s go very well with spicy food if your goal is to intensify the heat and this is where I really wish Japanese restaurants would step up their craft beer game. You see I like spicy food, I have a fairly high tolerance for hot spices and I enjoy it on my palate, so whenever I am trying to find a craft beer to go with spicy food I reach for a reasonably bitter IPA. I chose a signature spicy tuna dish from my local sushi place that is a rice roll jam packed with spicy tuna and lightly fried to give a crunchy outside texture, I like raw spicy tuna as well, but this particular roll is really quite nice and I ate a few avocado rolls to cleanse my palate between the rolls. The beer I chose was a Sergeant’s IPA from Old Yale Brewing brewed in Chilliwack, British Columbia (winner of Canadian Beer of the Year with their Sasquatch Stout in 2014). This IPA is moderately bitter with tangerine citrus notes and a piney grapefruit lingering finish making it a perfect spicy food pairing IPA.
The Results – Intense spiciness all over my mouth, top to bottom, left to right after every sip of beer. I have to admit that it was pretty wild to eat the sushi roll and get a kick of the spice and the follow it up with a sip of beer that brought a colossal wave of hot spice forward. Simply because of the way we eat, you often don’t taste the spice all over your palate and tongue, however when drinking something that intensifies it and spreads it everywhere it is a rather unique experience. Interesting enough, the hot food helped isolate the citrus hops in the beer making it even more interesting. Alternate options would be an India Pale Lager (basically a hoppy lager) to keep up with the spice intensity or if you want to tone it down a bit go for an Amber Ale that isn’t overly hoppy with a lower IBU rating.
Fourth Pairing – Cut the Fat with a Spicy Craft Beer.
When pairing beer with fatty foods you want something that will enhance the creaminess of any cheese or avacado in the food while cutting into any other fats to expose other flavours. If you have ever paired a spicy Belgian Golden Ale with Brie cheese you’ll know what I mean. For my final sushi pairing I had ordered some deep fried California Rolls, some regular California Rolls and some left over Avacado Rolls that I thought would pair nicely with unique collaboration beer out of Shawinigan, Quebec from two of their best breweries called Dieu Du Ciel and La Trou du Diable. This particular beer has a spicy grainy start with a nice juicy middle that finishes with some fruity mango and grapefruit notes.
The Results – As expected, the beer cut into the deep fried fats and enhanced the coating while simultaneously bringing out more creaminess in the avocado part of the roll and the fatty fish (which is imitation crab). Again the fruitiness was highly enhanced in the beer, completely changing its flavour in a positive way while making the rolls taste way better than they should. Even the regular California and Avocado rolls were superior when paired with the beer. Other options would be a spicy Wheat Beer, an intense Belgian Witbier or even a decent Bohemian style Pilsner with spicy Saaz hops would do well. If you wanted to go darker a Brown Ale would do ok with the deep fried parts.
In closing, this was a very fun experience that I wish were possible in an environment where the sushi is expertly plated like artwork and is very fresh to the table. Takeout is a close second, but nothing can fully replace the in house service of good Japanese restaurant. I just wish they would start carrying more interesting beers as the flavour combinations and beer pairings are endless in possibilities.