If you're anything like me, it doesn't get much better than great beer with great sushi. The only problem is that most sushi bars don't have a very wide selection of beers, at least not the ones that I have been to. They usually offer maybe one or two international lagers with the typical AB InBev options. Although these lighter lagers are tried and true (I'm a Sapporo guy myself), there are more beers out there that can pair beautifully with different sushi.
Where to start
Just like with any beer pairing (or any beverage for that matter), you want to start off any pairing by looking at the dish or beer and deciding its level of intensity or "impact". For a cheesy example, fresh mozzarella would be among the least intense cheeses (low impact), and a strong blue like Roquefort would be one of the most intense cheeses. This idea works with all foods, dishes, and beers.
The reason intensity/impact is important is because you want the pairing to work together, not dominate over the other. The goal is for a harmonious balance or outcome of flavor that, when paired, is tastier than the food or drink by themselves. Therefore, lighter foods should be paired with lighter beers and stronger dishes deserve a more assertive beer.
In general, sushi has a fairly low to moderate impact, so we want beers that will enhance the food without overpowering it. That means no imperial stouts or barleywines here. Common beers like Sapporo, Kirin, and Asahi are pretty light and are most often what you will find at the sushi bar and will definitely get the job done. They have low alcohol content, mild bitterness, and soft flavors/intensities overall. These are beers that will be fine with the whole course from sashimi to nigiri and specialty rolls, but some of the more intense rolls can benefit from stronger beers or ones with different, more pronounced flavors.
Appetizers and lighter courses
No matter what cuisine we are talking about, appetizers are usually going to have lower intensity when compared to the rest of the courses. You don't want the main dish to be outdone by the appetizer, right? So we are going to start with lighter beer options here as well.
Appetizers here are going to be things like miso soup, edamame, gyoza, and squid salad. These are commonly found at the sushi bars I have been to and are some of my favorite ways to start before I stuff my face with sushi.
Miso soup is packed with umami, is a bit salty, and really lets my belly know that sush' is 'bout to go down. Stay away from beers with pronounced bitterness like American pale ales as it may clash with the saltiness. Lighter and relatively malty beers like Kölsch and Munich Helles are excellent here. They have enough bitterness to cut the richness of the soup without clashing with the salinity. In fact, the saltiness will also make the soft bready flavors of the malt pop, enforcing a balance of delish.
Edamame is a fibrous, salty snack that also needs lighter beers. Kölsch can be king here with its grainy-sweet malt flavor and a touch of herbal and floral hop presence. Maybe a witbier with its use of citrusy-herbal coriander and orange peel combo can match the fresh green flavors of the beans.
Gyoza is a love dumpling filled with pork and cabbage and served with a tangy, salty, savory, piquant sauce. I call them yum-plings. A little more intense than miso or edamame, gyoza can handle some bitterness and would love a touch of crystal malt. Beers like Belgian-style pale ales, English bitters, and maybe even a Maibock will find good company here.
Squid Salad is an earthy and savory dish with some bright notes of pickled ginger. Something like a lemony and peppery saison might work well to complement the bright and earthy flavors while helping to cut the chewy mouthfeel with its high carbonation firm bitterness. A witbier or hefeweizen could be very nice, too.
Sashimi and Nigiri
One of the best parts of sushi is seeing those gorgeous colors of soft, delicate fish
on top of a hand-pressed wedge of sushi rice (nigiri) or by itself with its bold display of raw beauty (sashimi). They're often almost too pretty to eat. Sashimi and nigiri are also accompanied by a small dab of wasabi paste, soy sauce, and pickled palate-cleansing shreds of ginger. This means that each piece's intensity depends on the fish but overall is fairly moderate and can be spicier or saltier, depending on how much soy sauce and wasabi you use.
Be careful not to drown your fish in soy sauce or light up your mouth with too much wasabi. Ok, overloading wasabi is kind of fun and great to wash down with a liter of Sapporo, but it's nice to appreciate the fish for its finer flavors that can easily be hidden by too much soy sauce or wasabi.
Sashimi can be pretty light and soft like salmon or strong and salty like mackerel. It can be easy to overpower delicate fish with a bold beer or even clash with stronger, saltier fish with assertively bitter beer . The top three beers I'm reaching for here are Kölsch, Munich Helles, and Belgian pale ale. The salt in the soy sauce really enhances the water cracker and bready malt flavors found in Kölsch and Helles and Belgian-style pale ales raise the bar with light peppery phenols and fruity esters, especially with the tuna.
Sashimi is usually cut in thicker slices when compared to nigiri, and even though a minor change, is one to be noted for pairing. The bigger, fattier pieces of sashimi work great with a beer with higher carbonation as a cutting/cleansing sensation in the pairing. This is one reason I believe Save the World's Humilus Filius Belgian-style pale ale worked so nicely.
Belgian-style pale ale would also be a good one to try with mackerel, a stronger and saltier fish. Its bitterness is low enough to avoid clashing with the fish and the toasty malt flavors and peppery phenols seemed to really complement stronger flavors of the sea. The high carbonation and a dry finish also works nicely to clean up any oils, fat, and wasabi left over.
Nigiri is very similar to sashimi except it has a thinner slice of fish on top of a hand pressed
ball of sushi rice that was glazed with a sugar and rice vinegar solution, held together by a tiny smudge of sticky wasabi. Even if the fish is the same, nigiri makes it a different experience not only from the rice, but also from the mouthfeel. The rice ball makes it feel fuller and softer with some added tang from the vinegar.
Because of the small change, I like to stick with the lighter options like Kölsch, Helles or other lighter options. Belgian pale ale would be fine here, but I really like connecting the light malt flavors with those of the rice with paler beers.
A Czech Pale Lager is another beer that not only works well here, but throughout the meal. Bready malt, cleansing carbonation, and floral, spicy hop character all fit nicely for a great pairing with almost any sushi. What I especially like about it in these pairings is that sometimes Czech Pilzners can have a bit of remaining diacetyl, a natural byproduct of fermentation that tastes a little like butter. I think that the diacetyl really harmonizes with fish and rice. In fact, I generally don't care for much diacetyl in my beer at all, but when worked with food pairing, can be wonderful.
Unagi (Freshwater Eel) has to be cooked and is usually coated with eel sauce which is sweet, salty, and has a hint of smokiness with popping umami. All of this increases the intensity and calls a different beer. Our lighter beer choices are still going to be very tasty here, but we
want something that really lets you know it is an intended pairing. With the umami-rich salty sauce and buttery, soft and sweet eel, we want a beer with low bitterness but maybe a touch of darker roasted or crystal malts. I think a Schwartzbier (often referred to as a Black Pils) would be really awesome here as its soft roastiness that hints at bitter-chocolate would resonate with the dark sauce, and its pronounced bitterness and carbonation would cut the richness and fat of the fish.
Dunkelweizen might also be a sneaky star of a pairing with eel. Its malt flavor leans towards bread crust and toast that connect with umami, has plenty of aggressive, palate-cleansing carbonation, and the clove and banana flavors would be a great complement to the sauce. I know it sounds odd, but Unagi always reminds me of pancakes in a way. It has this smoky maple flavor that fools my brain for breakfast every time. Hefeweizen and dunkelweizen are wonderful breakfast food companions; they have normal ABV, very high carbonation, moderate intensity, and the bready malt flavors paired with clove and banana highlights really tackle all kinds of breakfast foods like breakfast sausage, eggs, weisswurst, greek yogurt, and biscuits.
Tamago (egg) is often served towards the end of a sushi meal, but I'm adding it here if only because it is served on rice like nigiri. Tamago (Japanese Omelette), if done right, is beautiful, sweet, and soft. Now that I think of it, I kind of want to try Tamago and Unagi for breakfast. Why not? Tamago really needs a hefeweizen. Banana esters and rich egg marry effortlessly while the clove-like phenols take place of black pepper and work to add an edge to the egg.
Clam, octopus, and scallop can have some stronger sea flavors and some can be a little more chewy, especially octopus. These three might benefit quite well from a bright, acidic, and explosively carbonated beer like gueuze. Bright, lemon-like acidity and carbonation work as a cutting power and the unique "funky" flavors in gueuze tend to complement fishy flavors with ease. Hefeweizen and witbier would also be good substitutes here.
Can't forget about the rolls. There are
dozens of ways to make a roll and every sushi bar seems to have their own signatures. They can get really creative with the ingredients and designs, so you'll need to pay attention to what is in them. Is it a basic roll with just seaweed, rice, and tuna? Is it fried? Is is rolled with jalapeños and spicy tuna and topped with spicy mayo?
Simple rolls like tuna or salmon can't take too much from a beer, so stick with lighter beers here. Kölsch, Helles, Cream Ale, and pale lagers are going to be just fine.
Rich rolls like ones with cream cheese need some strong cutting power from bitterness and/or carbonation to tackle the mouth-filling sweetness of the cheese. Hefeweizen, Belgian pale ale, and Czech Pilsner will be excellent contrasting beers for that job. Hefeweizen is fantastic with creamy cheeses and fresh fruit, so I'm reaching for one of those first.
Tempura rolls usually have fried shrimp and are often topped with crunchy tempura flakes. This is where we thought that Belgian pale ale really stole the show with the pairings. The fried tempura batter resonated with toasty, biscuity malt flavors of the pale ale while floral hops and light, fruity esters complemented the sweet shrimp and rice. The bitterness and carbonation were strong enough to clean up the flavors and prepare you for the next thrill of a bight. California Common and Czech Amber Lagers would also be lovely with tempura-style rolls.
Spicy rolls can be balanced with a pale malty beer like Helles or even a Belgian Blond. Belgian Blonds have some grainy-sweet malt flavors and elevated alcohol that can create a soft warming sensation that I think would be fun with the spice. Some spicy rolls could also probably handle a session IPA, but keep in mind that bitterness can aggravate capsaicin heat, but you probably wanted that burn anyway since you're going for the roll with "volcano"or "devil" in its name.
Speaking of the devil, I think that Duvel -a (THE) Belgian Golden Strong Ale- would be wonderful throughout a sushi dinner, too. Explosive carbonation, light grainy-sweet malt, and bright fruity esters would be the main characteristics that would work well to complement and contrast with sushi. It is similar to a Belgian Blond, but with a bit higher alcohol content.
Other Beers to Try
We have gone over a good spread of options and this definitely doesn't cover all sushi or beer, but I hope that it will be a good start and inspire you to try some pairings yourself. To wrap it all up, here is a list of beers to try that will work with different sushi dishes:
Früh Kölsch (German
Sünner Kölsch (Germany)
Saint Arnold Lawnmower (Texas)
Thirsty Planet Dance Pants (Texas)
Weihenstephaner Original (Germany)
Hacker-Pshorr Gold (Germany)
Saint Arnold Summer Pils (Texas)
Stiegl Gold (Austria)
Belgian-style Pale Ale
Save the World Humilus Filius (Texas)
De Konkinck APA (Belgium)
New Belgium Fat Tire (Colorado)
Erdinger Weissbier (Germany)
Ayinger Urweisse (Germany)
Live Oak Hefeweizen (Texas)
Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel (Germany)
St Bernardus Wit (Belgium)
Hitachino Nest White Ale (Japan)
Allagash White (Maine)
512 Wit (Texas)
Gueuze/Spontaneously Fermented Ales
Boon Gueuze Black Label (Belgium)
Boon Mariage Parfait (Belgium)
Jester King Spon (Texas)
Hanssens Oude Gueuze (Belgium)
La Trappe Blond (Belgium)
Kasteel Blond (Belgium)
Leffe Blond (Belgium)
St Feuillien Blond (Belgium)
Golden Strong Ale
Austin Beerworks Goldfist (Texas)
Save the World Sol Hominis (Texas)
Delerium Tremens (Texas)
Kostrizer Schwarzbier (Germany)
Shiner Black (Texas)
Colbizer Schwarz (Germany)
Faust Uncommon Valor (Texas)
Southerleigh Texas Uncommon Ale (Texas)
Anchor Steam Beer (California)
Saison Dupont Vieille Provision (Belgium)
Brooklyn Sorachi Ace (New York)
Boulevard Saison Brett (Missouri)
Friends and Allies Urban Chicken (Texas)