Eschewing the obvious choice of the day, our fave gal the Margarita, pairing craft beer and salsa is a fab way to engage your guests (and your tastebuds) since styles of beer vary just as much as chilis vary on the Scoville Scale. And you know what beers love? SPICE! Pick the perfect beer and salsa combo and unlock a new level of flavor–the herbs are brighter, the smoke more pronounced, the heat perfectly quenched–sip, dip, crunch, repeat. Let’s get this Cinco de Mayo party started!
Creating a Beer and Salsa Pairing
When crafting food and beer pairings, I like to think about the flavors and ingredients of both the beer style and the dish: is there overlap? Does one contain an element that would elevate the other? Do the hops overpower or integrate? What does the dish need, something to quench a fire or cut through cream? Would a dark roasted malt add the rich backbone that makes the dish sing? For initial inspiration, I always turn to my copy of The Brewmaster’s Table. Garrett Oliver’s resource is a fantastic jumping off point for your beer and food pairing journey!
Oliver does indeed have a list of recommended brews to go with salsa, however, he doesn’t specify the style of salsa. Are we talking pico or verde? Chipotle or queso? Store bought or homemade? Ah, there’s where this gets fun! There’s nothing better than your tastebuds to tell you if your food and beer pairing works! And it’s rally the only way to get good at food pairing yourself. In the name of zesty research, I spoke with a few chefs, the editor-in-chief of food review site Sporked, and finally the awesome staff of Astoria Bier & Cheese to create my preliminary lineup of salsas and the beer styles to match. I opted for varieties or brands of salsa that are easy to find or whip up at home, and selected beers for their style characteristics, not the specific breweries or brands.
I then spent an afternoon taste testing with Chef Mike Cain of Gertie and my sister, Liz, who loves craft beer but not enough to make a job out of it like me. This is one of those days I love my job even more than usual!
Choose Your Salsa
“If I’m opting for a homemade salsa or one at a restaurant I love a roasted salsa–I like to see the charred tomato skins in the mix,” remarks Justine Sterling, Editor in Chief of Sporked, “But my favorite brand to buy is Casa Sanchez. (They took the top spot and the number 5 spot in Sporked’s best salsa list.) Their salsas come across as very homemade with just the right amount of chunk and crunch. Everything is very fresh. Salsa verde is often left out of the conversation. But it’s particularly good with drinks thanks to its zesty tang!”
For our Cinco de Mayo pairings, I selected the following. While we’re typically all about craft with our food as well as our drinks we’re opting to use more widely available brands so the learnings here are applicable no matter where you live!
- Tostitos Restaurant Style – easy to find, highly acidic, very processed, medium heat
- Desert Pepper Queso – widely available, solid quality, medium heat, rich and cheesy
- Salsa Verde from El Rey Del Taco – fresh from my local taco spot, this heat does not F around
- Frontera Chipotle – nice smoke and roasted pepper notes, medium heat
- Homemade Chucky Avocado Salsa – super easy and fresh, can be as hot or mild as ya like!
Choose Your Beer
European style beers were first brewed in Mexico by the Spanish in the 16th century, production was limited by the availabilty of barley and grain and the high taxation kept the industry from ever really taking off. Post independence (Sept 16, 1810) brewing made a comeback, thanks in part to an influx of German immigrants. Hola, lager yeast!
Based on this history, a few beer styles just make sense to pair with this cuisine:
- Lager/Pilsner/Kolsch – Light, crisp, and palate cleansing- Mexican Lager is a no brainer for this. Va con todo!
- Dark Lager/Schwarzbier – See above, but add malt.
- German Wheat – citrusy, a little cloying, potential to cut heat and add a citrus pop.
- Märzen – might not be Oktoberfest but the malt in this makes sense.
- Rauchbier – why not add a little smoke to this fiesta?
History aside, a few other flavor profiles just lend themselves to the ingredients in salsa that I’m throwing in the mix:
- Saison – the peppery spice notes and dry finish are a perfect foil for spice!
- IPA – so many hops to choose from! For salsa, tropical, citrus and juicy IPAs will be your go-to.
Alright, we’ve got our beers and our salsas selected! Let’s get to work!
Light & Dark Lager
“Spice level definitely plays a big part in a beer pairing,” says Executive Chef Mike Cain, “As things get spicier I’m looking for a real clean, crisp beer to help round out the heat a bit. An ice cold lager or pilsner to reign in the heat.”
“I think spice level is such a personal thing,” adds Justine, “But what I look for, personally, is a heat level that is noticeable but not distracting. I don’t want to chug a beer because my lips are burning. I won’t be able to taste the beer and enjoy it. But I do want a spice level high enough that it makes me reach for a beer.”
Looking for an equally versatile option? Dark Lager or Schwarzbier also paired with just about everything, but didn’t cut through the heat of the salsa verde as well as some other beers did. We also threw a gluten free Dark Lager in the mix and it paired extremely well with the fresh avocado salsa!
Lagers, Pilsners, and Kolsch pair with any salsa or queso!
Dark Lagers are great with queso and 99% of all salsa, but they may not cut the heat as well.
Wheat Beers & Saisons
Wheat beers love citrus! The lime and tomato in Mexican cuisine is a fabulous match for the haze and sweetness of wheat. Saisons vary from brewer to brewer, but the notes of pepper, coriander, and the palate cleansing dryness simply beg to pair with food, especially garden vegetables! When it comes to food and beer pairings, Justine wants “them to egg each other on, I want the food to make me thirsty and I want the drink to make me hungry. Every time I take a bite and then a sip, I want to feel an immediate urge to combine those two sensations again.”
The acidity in the Tostitos salsa met its match in the wheat beer, making the lackluster salsa palatable (yup, I said what I said). The smoke in the chipotle was elevated by the citrus sweetness of the wheat beer, it was also a great match for the spice palate in the Saison. Both beer styles played nicely with the fresh option, and for me they really tamped the heat on the verde. My sister was not a fan of the verde/wheat pairing, but for me the weight of the beer really complimented the spice. The Saison took the herbal notes in in the salsa verde to the next level, the combo is really a celebration of cilantro! Neither style really did anything for the queso, it was too heavy with the wheat and fell flat with the Saison.
Wheat Beers pair with all salsas, but not with queso.
Saisons pair with all salsas, but not with queso. Fabulous with salsa verde!
Märzen, Rauchbier, & IPA
It might seem a little odd to reach for an Oktoberfest in May, but hear me out. The amber malty notes in the beer work with salsa and spice, add a little smoke and the flavors mirror chiptotle! Both Märzen and Rauchbier would also be fun pairings with the sauce that Puebla is most known for: mole.
“I am a sucker for all things smoked,” says Chef Cain, “So if you’ve got a smoked beer, and a chipotle salsa, I’m in heaven. It’s definitely a bit much and I’m sure not for everyone but I’ll never get enough smokey flavored anything.”
For our tasting, I selected a smoked Märzen which was absolute perfection with the queso and really fun with the verde. It was a little much with anything tomato heavy and slightly overpowered the salsa Fresca.
Where the depth of the two German styles brings out the roasty richness in the dips, the bright quality of the IPA cut through spice and popped flavors.
I selected a NEIPA with Citra, Cashmere, and Simcoe hops, full of citrus and tropical notes and just a hint of, well, cannabis (cannabis and hops are closely related). Winner winner, chicken dinner! The IPA worked with EVERYTHING. It was zippy and cut through the fat of both the avocado and the queso, quenched the heat on the verde, and deliciously hightlighted the smoke in the chipotle. This was our hands down fave.
Märzen & Rauchbier pair with queso and salsa verde.
IPAs (NEIPA) pair with all salsa! 100% match!
What Will You Be Drinking & Eating This Cinco De Mayo?
Ready to create a Cinco de Mayo salsa and beer pairing of your own now? Fantastic! We’d love to see your pairings on social media and hear what’s working and what’s not in the comments below.
If you’re ready to level up, create an IPA pairing inspired by Chef Cain’s “perfect combo…a fruity fresh salsa with just a touch of heat, think peach salsa with just a little bit of chipotle, and a nice hazy IPA like the Kills Boro Island Vibes.”
Jena is an event host & contributing writer for The Crafty Cask, as well as an award-winning bartender, cocktail educator, Cicerone Certified Beer Server, and Executive American Whiskey Steward. Based in NYC, Jena has been working in the craft alcohol world for the last 15 years with recipes appearing in Manhattan restaurant/bars & multiple publications. She is the 2019 Nikka Perfect Serve Global Runner Up and a 2020 Cognac Connection winner.