There’s nothing like a traditional shore lunch. The golden and crispy fried fish filets, fresh-caught and balanced on a mountain of onions and fried potatoes. The aroma of the fish intermingles with the smell of campfire smoke and the breathtaking views of the wilderness somehow make the flavor better. I try to have a shore lunch at least once or twice a season. These simple meals become one of the true highlights of my angling year. That is, of course, unless they go wrong.
A few months ago I was on a walleye fishing trip with a buddy. We had caught our limit and then pulled up to a small isolated island to enjoy the bounty of the day. We fried up the walleye in butter and oil and I piled my paper plate full, found the perfect sitting stump, and was just settling down to enjoy my first crispy bite when I noticed something was missing. “Hey, you got a beer?” My buddy nodded, stood up from the cooler he was sitting on, reached in, and tossed me a cold can of peach seltzer! I looked at the can in my hand then back at my piled plate, sighed, and tossed it all in the fire. The moment was ruined.
Just like when you’re eating in a fine restaurant that pays a sommelier to make sure you have the right wine, matching the right beer with your fish can make or break a meal for you. Hoppiness has to be balanced, bitterness needs to be a consideration, and even the origin and region of the beer can be of vital importance for complete enjoyment of the meal. Now you may be thinking that I’m making too big a deal about beer, and I’m not saying you need to be a big drinker in order to enjoy a good plate of fish, but if you do partake, then some thought and feeling should go into your choice of libation. Unfortunately, there isn’t any sort of collapsible beer sommelier that you can cram into a backpack or stuff into a cooler or livewell and released to question whenever you need guidance.
As a connoisseur of both beer and fish, I’m here to help. Without further ado, here’s my list of the best beer and fish combinations to please your taste buds.
The British got it right on this one. For the last 1000 years (or something like that), they’ve been serving the classic combination of deep-fried fish, a side of fries—"chips" if you want to be a jerk about it—with a pint of lager. The mild yet clean and crisp bite of a lager is the perfect thing to cleanse the palate between meaty bites of crispy fried fish. It's a combo that works with any sort of fried fish concoction.
From catfish po-boys and a Budweiser to fish tacos with a Corona, no matter how you’re frying your fish or what you’re making it into, there’s a lager to match. Of course, in England they serve their beer warm, so for the authentic experience, you might want to skip the beer in the fridge and instead grab the one that’s been rolling around in the bottom of your empty cooler for the last few days.
Smoking fish properly takes a lot of planning and a lot of preparation. You have to make a brine, soak the fish, set your smoker to the proper temperature, and then patiently wait in drooling anticipation until the fish have reached perfection. This is not a task that calls for something light that comes in cardboard boxes of 30 from a gas station, but rather a beer that's had as much thought and preparation put into its flavor profile as you put into your smoked fish. Your best bet for this is a porter.
Porters are dark and thick as the smoke billowing around you’re cooking fish and have a sharp bite to their flavor that enhances every forkful of your favorite smoked fish dish. Additionally, many porters have their own woody flavors with notes of cherry, walnut, orange, and apple. If you want to completely nerd out over it, you can match the woodchips you put into your smoker with the flavor of porter in your fridge. If you do this though, make sure to get a pair of thick frame glasses, a couple of faded flannels from Goodwill, and a wool watch cap you can wear even when it’s 90 degrees outside because you’ll need to go full-blown hipster to actually pull it off.
There’s nothing better than a rich and hearty fish chowder after a long, cold day on the water. Chowders are rejuvenating dishes that stick with you, not only filling your belly but also your heart with all the warm comforts of home. Bearing that in mind, you want a beer to go with chowder that’s just as hearty and a stout is the only way to go.
Stouts are thick, heavy beers, with a slight roasted malt sweetness and a bitter bite that balances well and even complements the creamy richness of a good chowder. Additionally, many stouts are almost a meal unto themselves and when combined with a nourishing and filling chowder, you’ve got something that will set you up for the rest of the day. As my grandmother used to say when she’d make walleye chowder and serve it with Guinness, it a combo that will “stick to your ribs” and make sure that you won’t really need to eat anything for the rest of the day, week, or even the rest of the month.
There’s something inherently simple yet delightful about baking fish. It’s done by simply setting the oven, adding whatever blend of herbs and spices to either filets or a whole fish, and then tossing it in the oven to cook to perfection. It’s a set-it-and-forget-it type of fish cooking that allows you plenty of free time after prepping the main course to do things like make side dishes, finish up that game of Madden, and of course, pour a beer.
With so much free time before the meal, you may find that you can actually have quite a few beers and get a good glow on before you eat. And nothing in the beer world sets you up better than a nice mild ale. Ales have a very full-bodied and slightly fruity taste. They’re complex and mouth-filling beers that, when combined with the savory richness of baked fish, somehow manages to both enhance the food and bring out flavors of the meal you didn’t even realize were there. Just be sure to not pre-game too hard beforehand. Too many ales before a meal of baked fish can make for an uncomfortable night for both you and anyone unfortunate enough to be within splash range.
Whether you’re eating sushi, sashimi, or a poke bowl, eating raw fish is about enjoying the flavor of fish in its purest form, enhanced with only a few simple additional ingredients. Meals of raw fish are usually light, fresh, and flavorful and to truly enjoy them with a beer, your chosen libation should match. I’ve eaten a lot of raw fish meals and have gone through a lot of different types of beer trying to find the perfect one to compliment the dish (horribly taxing research, I know) and my absolute favorite was the Witbier.
Witbiers are Belgian and the phrase literally translates to “white beer.” This is because, unlike the American “wheat beers,” witbier is always cloudy due to the unusual combination of proteins and hops used in making the brew. Not to be confused with a hefeweizen which are generally sweeter and have notes of banana and even vanilla, witbiers are light and crisp with notes of citrus and spice that perfectly complement whatever raw fish snack or meal you’re going for. Now you might be saying how strange it is that a Belgian beer goes so well with raw fish meals that mostly originate in tropical places. However, areas of Belgium are located along the North Sea where the locals regularly enjoy meals of raw mussels with mustard and whole raw herring served with onions. Anyone who can stomach that had better have the right beer for the job.
We’ve all had some bad fish dishes that we’ve been forced to suffer through. Sometimes they come from a cheap overcrowded restaurant, a significant other trying to impress us with their culinary skills, or because we forgot to set a timer or indulged in a few too many beers before we started cooking.
However they happen, instead of scraping the plate in the garbage and starting over (which never goes over well in the case of the significant other), I’d suggest matching these bad fish dishes with a few IPAs. These beers are hoppy as hell and strongly flavored with a slightly to very bitter edge that, depending on which brand you go for, is more than capable of completely overpowering, wiping out, or burning out any bad bite of fish. What’s more is that these beers also have a higher-than-normal alcohol content which is great because if you drink enough of them, you won’t care what your fish tastes like anyway.
None of these beer and fish combinations are set in stone. They’re just the ones I’ve happened to discover and enjoy, but I’m sure there are other great beer and fish combos out there. Some beers probably work for grilled fish, poached fish, and even pickled fish. That’s the wonderful thing about fishing, eating fish, and drinking beer: it’s very much open to interpretation and experimentation.
I encourage everyone to go out and do their own research and find their own perfect beer/fish combinations. Be cautious though, especially when serving others. You might screw up badly enough that your buddy burns all the food and then takes the boat home, leaving you alone on an island with your thoughts and your beers. At least they won't be peach seltzers.