Once upon a time in the Roman Empire, probably in what’s now France, someone slapped a selection of meats on a slab and called it a meal. From that action sprung charcuterie, an idea carried throughout the latter days of antiquity, through the Middle Ages, and into modern times.
Along the way, charcuterie has become closely associated with wine. That is probably because of the Gallic roots (“charcuterie” can mean “delicatessen” or “cooked meats” in French), but more likely because of wine’s vaunted position as the go-to beverage for complementing food.
But wine isn’t the only viable drink pairing for charcuterie. Take beer, for instance. Certain styles of beer can bring out the best in the often salty, fatty globules, including sausages and cold cuts, that comprise the bulk of any decent charcuterie platter.
Just ask Greg Engert, the beer director and a partner at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which operates several eating and drinking establishments in the Washington, D.C., area, notably including the Partisan, which boasts an impressive selection of both charcuterie and beer.
Engert cites sour beers in particular as the perfect accompaniment for charcuterie.
Be warned, though: Sour beers are not always so sour. Rather, the term describes a whole range of flavors and aromas, with a sourness sometimes front and center or in the slightest aftertaste. As Engert explains in an email: “Some are delicately piquant, some elegantly acidic, while others are dark and vinous or imbued with straight-up barnyard funk, but all have a wild side encouraged by mixed fermentations not found in your standard ale or lager. While it is this variety that makes these brews so versatile for food pairing, they find no better partner than with charcuterie.”
The reason that sour beers go so well with charcuterie is much the same as why certain wine styles, such as Sangiovese and Riesling, do.
“The effervescence and firm acidity,” says Engert, “keep the palate lively and refreshed, but also give fatty flavors a lift, while balancing against salinity, so that the more subtle flavors of the meat and spice may shine through.”
According to Engert, some recent hit sour-charcuterie pairings at D.C.’s Partisan have included prosciutto with a fruited version of 2015’s It style, gose; oak-aged sour red ale with bologna; and soppresssata with a sour iteration of brown ale.
Sour beers even work well with certain cheeses that may find their way onto a charcuterie platter, according to John Holl, author of the The American Craft Beer Cookbook and the new Dishing Up New Jersey (and my editor at All About Beer, the leading brewing-industry trade magazine). Holl suggested a sour beer for richer, creamier cheeses, such as triple crème (in particular, he cited Lagunitas’ new Aunt Sally release).
No zest for sour beers? What then? Go heavy. The lush richness and alcoholic strength of styles such as barleywine and double India pale ales will slice right into charcuterie’s own richness and strength. There is also a fair amount of that magic acidity in these styles.
Barring these for charcuterie, though, develop a taste for sours. It’s the meatiest choice in this case.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His latest, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, was a finalist for the 2016 James Beard Award for best beverage book.