From the dorm rooms of American college students to the oldest ramen shops in Japan, piping hot bowls of noodles and ice-cold beer have always gone hand in hand. Now, with an influx of traditional ramen shops popping up in the U.S. from coast to coast, people are looking at the ways new craft beers might complement a steaming bowl of noodles.
The various styles of both ramen and beer span a complex and varied spectrum, but at their core, they’re essentially both comfort foods. So it makes sense that places like Ganso in New York (run by Japanese cookbook author and food writer Harris Salat) and Ramen Shop in Oakland (whose founding partners met while working at Chez Panisse) are expanding their beer offerings to include dozens of craft brews in addition to the standard Sapporo, Asahi and Kirin.
If you’re interested in finding the perfect Japanese ramen and beer pairing beyond those standard offerings, both Ganso manager Tsuru Goto and Ramen Shop’s beer buyer Sam White recommend exploring new Japanese craft beers that are coming into the states, like Hitachino White, or any beers from Baird Brewing Company and Oze No Yukidoke, which are generally well-balanced, complex and nuanced. Check out their crafty picks below for other exciting American and European pairing suggestions.
The salt-based broth is the oldest of the traditional styles, with the lightest body and flavor profile. Chicken and seafood are typically introduced to the mix, with pork only making the occasional appearance. Veggie additions like green onions, bean sprouts and bamboo are often added perks.
Recommended Beer: White recommends a subtle Pale Ale, like the Mt. Tam from Marin Brewing in Larkspur, California, which is “a well-balanced beer with a nice full body,” he says. With the lightness and subtlety of the Shio broth, it’s important to find a beer that won’t overpower the delicate flavors.
This soy sauce-based broth has a slightly more substantial backbone than its sibling Shio; the broth often incorporates chicken, pork or seafood as an additional flavor component. The liquid is clear and salty but with substantial meaty depth, so it acts as a favorable backdrop to pork shoulder and an assortment of bamboo, seaweed and bok choy.
Recommended Beer: Goto suggests Rodenbach Classic, a Flanders Red, because the slightly acidic, cherry notes in the beer will complement the at times gamey flavors in the ramen. Traditional pilsners and lagers will also make a nice match, she says, because their crisp and refreshing profiles complement the light, salty broth. Try the Southampton Keller Pils from New York, or the Pikeland Pils from Sly Fox Brewing in Pennsylvania. Overly hoppy or full-bodied styles like Stout or Porter should be avoided, because the flavors will overpower the ramen.
One of the latest styles to emerge in the ramen world (most sources cite Hokkaido in the late 1960s), the slightly cloudy broth is made with soybean paste. Its earthy, nutty flavors act as a strong base for rich pork belly, cabbage and buttery corn. Miso also lends itself well to spicy chili paste.
Recommended Beer: Goto picks Belgian or Trappist beers, citing Orval specifically, because the floral and fruity yeast, zesty coriander and orange peel flavors in the beer contrast the creamy umami flavors in the miso. Goto says both the beer and broth have a big, creamy mouth feel, which prolongs the tasting experience in a pleasant fashion.
The heaviest broth of the traditional styles, Tonkotsu is made by simmering pork bones for long hours to extract the fatty marrow and flavors from the bones. The creamy, oily broth is so thick it resembles cream or milk. Tonkotsu is often flavored with chicken broth to add a salty base, and egg, mushroom and dark greens often play garnish.
Recommended Beer: Gueuze Tilquin, a blended Lambic, is the first choice of White, who says it makes sense that the beer and broth would pair well because both are made via “incredibly painstaking processes,” resulting in complex and interesting flavor profiles. The beer is a blend of 1, 2 and 3-year-old Lambics, which were crafted by spontaneous fermentation. It has a tart but dry profile, with slight tannins from oak aging that happens before bottling. White says the acidity also does a good job of cutting through the fattiness of the broth.
Any of the aforementioned styles of ramen can be fired up with a heaping glob of chili paste or oil.
Recommended Beer: White’s go-to brew for spicy ramen is Stiegl lager, which has a bit of malty sweetness to it but is still bright and refreshing, to contrast the spice. In general, stick to malty brews or bright lagers, because when you pair highly hoppy brews like IPAs with heat, both components become amplified, usually resulting in an aggressive clash of flavors.
Read more about ramen on Food Republic: