Beer and Seafood: Match Made in Heaven?

Probatum est

The association of beer with crustaceans or fish is traditional. I’ll give two instances here, bracketing a period of approximately 100 years.

I’ll confine the look to the Anglo-American world, but I’ve shown earlier that the coastal northwest of France has a repertoire of fish dishes with beer as an ingredient or to pair with beer.

Of course, Belgium parallels the association on its coast, and the Dutch eat their new herring of the season with Heineken and other Dutch beers.

The Germans cook herring over smouldering fires at the Octoberfest, and the Scandinavians enjoy their countless pickled and smoked fish with beer as well.

In the North American and British context, this inheritance is somewhat withered at this time. Still, the association was well-remembered into the 1990s, and beer writers felt obliged to record recipes, or offer pairing suggestions, in the food section of their books.

This echoed popular events such as the Royal Canadian Legion’s beer and oyster parties. I doubt these are still held or if they are, they don’t have the profile they once did as the Legion itself is reduced in influence.

The tradition was always regional to a degree, especially on the northeast coast of North America, where fish was easily available and the cultural memories of Britain still strong. This explained the tradition of serving musty ale with broiled lobster in New England that I recorded in my study of musty ale published last year in Brewery History.

And so, until recently in the broader society you could count on finding easily a recipe for pan roast of oysters with beer, a chowder with beer, Finnan Haddock freshened in beer, all that class of eating.

Today, the food scene is diverse, with international, fusion, and “invented” cuisines presenting countless options. The Dickensian beer and oysters is hard to decipher in the cultural acquis.

But is stout really a classic accompaniment to oysters, or other seafood, in a gastronomic sense? Beer authority Michael Jackson of course drew attention to the pairing in his early books, and later writers ran with it.

One reads various rationales, for example, in Victorian England porter and oysters were commonly available in the London estuary. Hence the idea to pair them, and the pairing was felicitous.

But lots of things were available in London to eat that were cheap. Tripe, say. Yet oysters were elevated to a special role as black beer’s esteemed companion.

The trans-Atlantic food sage, Cassell’s, noted that a “thin light wine like Chablis” was the best accompaniment to oysters due to its cleansing power, it swept the strong taste from the mouth, see here. Cassell’s stated that beer was often formerly used at table (in general, in Britain that is), but was replaced by claret when its cost became acceptable.

Cassell’s could have reserved a special place for porter-and-oysters, but didn’t. Of course that doesn’t settle the question, necessarily.

I think the reason fish and seafood go together is not that the tastes are complementary, but fish is a light food. Beer has bulk and weight. To eat an airy, non-solid thing with a filling, caloric drink therefore makes sense. That is the real reason for the pairing, I think.

So let’s look at two instances of beer and seafood. The first, from 1843, is from William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Irish Sketch Book. He gives a recipe to cook a lobster, and advises to pair it with porter, followed by whiskey-punch.


The recipe is very rich, which would dissuade many from making it today, although one can lighten the sauce in different ways and achieve a similar effect.

Of porter, its return to beery prominence since the 1970s is such that you can find it almost anywhere.

But a three-foot lobster? That will be harder. Such outsize creatures occasionally still emerge from Neptune’s domain, see this story out of Devon some years ago. Most stories on the modern monsters emphasize that they are too old to eat. This didn’t dissuade Thackeray’s convives.

All the butter, bottled sauces, pepper, and Cayenne probably helped the stringy bits go down, capped by good Irish porter and finally, the native whiskey.

Today, we should buy a few normal-size creatures and proceed from there.

The second reference to fish and beer is a general one, from an American press story in 1933 that projected a revival of the fish trade due to the return of beer with repeal of Prohibition. This shows the strong cultural association that existed between Poseidon and porter. The story quoted from a trade journal, the Atlantic Fisherman:

Wherever men and women may gather and quaff the beverage, there, will countless fish products be dispensed. Stripped salt pollock, tasty cubes of salt cod, delicious smoked herring. Maine sardines, even fillets of fresh cooked fish and fish strips were among the fish products that were to be found in demand in the earlier days. There was a deep psychology between beer and ocean products. Beer and fried oysters or clams; beer and sardines; beer and boiled lobsters; beer and fish cakes; or was it musty ale and broiled lives [live lobsters] that packed cafes with well fed people? Already fishermen all up and down the coast are greatly heartened. They want the “new deal” President Roosevelt has promised, and they like the prompt manner in which he is handing out the cards. Just last season it was declared not a sardine factory would open on the Maine coast this year. But despite crushing competition, they now see light ahead, and many are planning an early opening. Weir men who declared they were absolutely through are busy rebuilding their weirs with encouraging confidence. The attractively packaged and tasty salt and smoked fish products are, according to most fish folk, due for a come-back. With the greatly broadened markets bound to come along with beer, there seems to be a much brighter future ahead for this trade. Briefly, beer spells better times for the fishermen; more money
for them.

Now there’s a great expression, the “deep psychology” between fish and beer. No full-length book could put it better than a prewar trade publication did.







4 thoughts on “Beer and Seafood: Match Made in Heaven?”

  1. For that matter, cold dry lagers are very popular with seafood in Southeast Asia (and other food, for that matter). They work well in the heat and don’t clash with all of the spices and other assertive flavors. They go great with a plate of crabs or shrimp cooked with chili peppers, fish sauce, lime, garlic and ginger.

  2. In Japan, light lager is probably second only to sake as the drink to go with sushi and sashimi. In that case, I think it’s because you generally want something crisp and uncomplicated to avoid distracting from the pure freshness of the fish. If you’re drinking some crazy appletini with your sashimi, you may as well be shovelling barely thawed frozen tilapia doused with a metric ton of wasabi and soy sauce into your mouth for all it matters.

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