Beer is an exemplary companion for sushi. A lager or ale with delicate flavors and plenty of bubbles will give even the finest sake a run for its money as the best beverage at your omakase. Follow these steps and suggestions pair beer and sushi.
General Tips for Pairing Sushi and Beer
There are many presentations that people refer to as sushi: simple nigiri that allows the fish to shine, flavorful rolls with toppings that have strong flavors, dons or fish over rice in a large bowl, and some even refer to the Japanese Kaiskei meals (which may feature raw fish) as sushi.
These are general guidelines to follow that will help find a beer that will elevate your experience and never interfere with the ephemeral flavors of well made sushi.
Avoid Malt-Forward Beers
Simple lagers or malt-forward ales tend to be a good pairing option because of their simplicity but not in this case. I have found that bready, toasty, or sweet malt flavors tend to weigh down the flavors of the fish and do not complement any flavors in sushi. Since the rice is dressed with bright tangy vinegars to enhance the flavors of the fish there are no real grainy flavors found in sushi and the occasional nutty note of sesame isn’t enough to make this pairing work.
Look for Simple Flavors
So much of Japanese cuisine is about highlighting the simplicity of pure ingredients from nature. Omakase (which translates to “I’ll leave it up to you” or “chef’s choice”) is a multi-course menu with the chef crafting each piece by hand to showcase ingredients when they are at their absolute best. Since there is no way to know what will come next in one of these special meals, it is best to keep flavor in drinks clean and minimalist.
The most important thing is not selecting a beer that will clash with the meal. Luckily the beverage directors at restaurants will only select options that work well for the menu, but if you are bringing your own drink or having sushi at home the curation is up to you! Looking for beers that have low bitterness, subtle yeast flavor, and very light malt flavor will result in a great pairing. Witbiers, tripels, blondes, light lagers, are a good bet!
High Carbonation is Better
There is a time and place for smooth luxe lagers and sweet syrupy barleywines but a sushi dinner isn’t one of them. With such fine and subtle flavors in the food it is helpful to have a drink that acts as a palate cleanser (with bubbles scrubbing the palate) to help you experience each bite with a fresh start.
The Best Beers to Drink with Sushi
After many omakase dinners out at restaurants and time working on my own sushi techniques at home these are the beers that I would most recommend for enjoying next to traditional sushi.
This is consistently my top food pairing beer and it really shines next to sushi. Light apple and pear notes from the yeast enhance the brightness created by the carbonation and the very dry finish. Duvel is a perfect palate cleanser and complements the subtle sweetness in many fish. Even with more oily and strongly flavored fish where Duvel doesn’t necessarily find a flavor complement there isn’t any clashing and the high carbonation provides a pleasant cleaning feeling after strong flavors.
This is my go-to beer when a sushi place is BYOB. Especially if you can find it in the 750ml size the bottle fits in the ice buckets that restaurants have for sake and wine bottles so you get to keep your Duvel chilled throughout dinner.
Kagua is a series of Belgian-style ales formulated by Japanese brewers at Far Yeast Brewing Company. Just like their Belgian counterparts at Chimay, the Kagua beers are labeled by color with a Red, White (or Blanc), and Yellow option. The Kagua White is the best match for sushi out of the three. It has an obvious but not obtrusive yuzu aroma that is reminiscent of yuzu used on sushi and in accompanying sauces like ponzu. As with most Belgian style beers Kagua has that same zippy carbonation that makes Duvel such a nice match for sushi. Kagua Yellow is Far Yeast’s take on a Saison, it has notes of both yuzu and a strong note of herbal sancho that can be overpowering with certain fish. So it may work well with rolls that have strong flavor elements and sauces but it is a little too overwhelming for nigiri.
Kizakura’s Kyoto White Yuzu
Kizakura is a sake brewery that also makes almost a dozen different beers. Because the beers feature Japanese ingredients and brewing techniques they’re an easy choice to enjoy alongside traditional meals like sushi. However many of these beers feature flavors that are too strong for the delicate flavors of traditional sushi. Again, because of the subtle notes of yuzu and all around lightness of flavor the white ale, Kyoto White Yuzu, is the best of the bunch with sushi. As a bonus, it is one of the most commonly available Kizakura’s beers in the US. The Kyoto Kolsch and the Kyoto “Flavor of Sake” are also flavorful without being too overpowering, however they’re harder to find.
The Kyoto White Yuzu is more subtle than the Kagua White with a lower level of carbonation. This smooths out the impressions of the flavors a bit and makes for a slightly heavier finish which can be a nice contrast, especially toward the end of a meal.
Just as it says in the name this beer is very dry and light. The body of this saison is especially lean because it uses rice in the grain bill. The tropical hops have big notes of citrus and leave an aftertaste that lingers a bit so I enjoy this one most when having omakase because there is time for the flavor to dissipate after a sip while the chef prepares the next piece.
If you’re new to sushi or trying a certain fish for the first time this beer may be too intense. Bold hop flavor can obscure some of the complexity in the fish with it’s citrus blossom aromas, so beware!
Asahi Super Dry
Of course, Japanese and Asian lagers are some of the most common pairings when it comes to sushi. While maybe not the most creative pairing, these beers are a solid choice. Asian lagers with low levels of malt flavor and high carbonation are especially great with sushi. When I have a choice I usually go for Asahi Super Dry for this reason. There is not very much malt flavor to weigh anything down.
In fact, a statement from the brewery itself emphasized these attributes: “ Asahi Super Dry is direct result of extensive market research which indicated a consumer preference for a more palatable beer with less maltiness, relatively high alcohol content and a light aftertaste, that paired well with the changing Japanese diet.”