The occasion of my first batch of choucroute garni (garnished sauerkraut) of the season provided me with a good excuse to take a few beers out for a spin. Choucroute garni is an Alsatian dish that I came to love in Strasbourg. It’s a braised mélange of sauerkraut and a potpourri of meats, with or without potatoes. Typical meats for choucroute garni include sausages (frankfurters, Montbéliard sausage, bratwurst, weisswurst), bacon, ham hocks, pork knuckles and shoulder, and/or just about anything else you’d like. Some folks even use goose or duck meat.
Despite the sound of it, choucroute garni, when it’s done right, isn’t an especially heavy dish. It is, however, fairly salty. And spices like juniper berries, cloves, bay leaves, caraway and black peppercorns can make for an interesting challenge when selecting a beverage to pair. The default choice is Riesling—preferably from Alsace. But since there were a number of beers I hadn’t tried at my local store, I decided to go the brew route. Here are some tasting/pairing notes:
For starters, I chose to limit myself to German and Czech beers or beers made in that style. A Bohemia ($1.79) from Mexico, for example, is a very well made Czech-style pilsner with just the right amount of weight to stand up to choucroute garni. It’s not heavy like a porter or stout would be, but not insipid like a Corona or Coors, either—no lime required. A surprisingly good match.
Next, I decided to try a Bitburger pils ($1.48) from Germany. Founded in 1817, Bitburger brewery makes Germany’s best-selling beer. Frankly, it was disappointing. A bit too light and a little bitter, although it did pair pretty well with the Mattern weisswurst sausages I scored at Pirate O’s. Even less appealing was New Zealand’s Steinlager premium lager ($1.69) which, frankly, I bought thinking it was German. I’ve got nothing against New Zealand at all, but maybe they should stick to making Sauvignon Blanc. In short, it’s a skunky, uninteresting beer with a bit of a medicinal, phenol taste. I won’t let it near my kraut again.
On the other hand, I scored with Paulaner premium pils ($1.65) from Germany. This stuff has been being made since 1634, and I’d call Paulaner an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” beer. This lager has a light-to-medium body which is perfect for choucroute garni or just a wiener at the ballpark, for that matter. There are hints of citrus in the Paulaner which dovetail beautifully with the slightly sweet and nutty flavor of braised sauerkraut. Plus, this beer seems to have been made to drink with bratwurst.
Another winner was Lev Lion lager ($1.90). It’s the crisp, clean-tasting Czech lager that won the gold medal in 2000 for “Beer of the Czech Republic.” And those folks know a thing or two about lager. Nice, grassy Saaz hop aromas lead to slight bitterness which turns malty on the tongue and tastes fantastic with frankfurters.
Just for the hell of it, I decided to see how a wheat beer would fare, so I cracked open a bottle of Ayinger Ur-Weisse ($2.78). It’s an amber-colored, yeast-clouded wheat beer with a distinctly top-fermented yeasty taste—a lovely beer, but one I’d prefer to savor with something other than my choucroute. For that, I’d turn to Ayinger’s lighter, bottom-fermented Jahrhundert-Beir ($2.78) with its honeyed aromas and marvelous malt flavors.
Finally, from Austria comes Kapsreiter Landbier ($3.72) in its Grolsch-style swing-top bottle. This is a pale lager with Helles-style qualities, but more hoppyness. It’s very well-balanced and a nice fit for choucroute garni, even if you are paying extra for the fancy bottle.