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How to pair beer with poke

Pick Six Pils from Pizza Port Brewing is a pretty great beer to pair with poke.
Pick Six Pils from Pizza Port Brewing is a pretty great beer to pair with poke.

Poke is having a moment in Los Angeles. And from the creative takes to the simple classics, the umami-rich medley of raw fish, rice and various toppings provides a great way to explore how craft beer can complement your meal.

Beer is a common accompaniment to scoops of poke on the islands, but picking the right brew to pair with your poke can be challenging. There are so many variations on the theme that specific pairing recommendations can be tricky. It’s better to approach your beer selections with a few simple guidelines in mind.

The starting point for any successful food-and-beer match is to balance the strength of the flavors in the dish (spice, richness, sweetness and complexity) with the brew’s overall impact (bitterness, acidity and alcohol). The basic ahi poke is pretty mild, and the subtle sweetness of the yellowtail and nuttiness of the sesame oil can be easily overpowered by a pungent double IPA. A brew that’s light and crisp is a better choice.

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The light lager is the typical go-to brew for islanders grabbing a poke bowl, but there are many options that offer more flavor and complexity, and pair even better with poke. Craft pilsners such as Pick Six Pils from Pizza Port Brewing or Firestone Walker’s Pivo Pils balance hop character with a subtle malt sweetness. A more malt-accentuated helles-style lager works even better by tying in the rice and balancing the saltiness of the shoyu dressing.

Maui Brewing Co. founder Garrett Marrero calls Maui’s Bikini Blonde lager a natural fit for ahi poke, saying: “The bubbles lift the fish oils and clean the palate, and the tad bit of hop spice complements the ahi.”

If you’re getting into a more spicy bowl, Marrero recommends a hoppy IPA. The hoppy bitterness that defines the IPA style will actually intensify the heat.The citrus and tropical fruit flavors of many IPAs also find harmonies with any poke preparations that include fruit — such as the pineapple-and-chile tuna poke from Ohana Poke Co.

A dark and roasty beer can also be a great match for a poke with soy sauce, seaweed and tofu. The roasted malts help to soften the impact of these umami-rich ingredients on the palate and round out the flavors. Try an Irish dry stout (a traditional match for seafood and shellfish) or German schwarzbier. Jesse Houck, former brewmaster at Golden Road Brewing, and now director of brewing operations at Maui Brewing, said that a black lager is his go-to brew for a bowl of poke (especially Maui’s pipikaula — a dried and cubed beef brisket often mixed with ahi).

One flavor combination you need to beware of is hoppy beers and salmon. In Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide from the Pairing Pros,” authors Julia Herz and Gwen Conley say that salmon’s “omega-3 oil molecules quickly become unstable when they come in contact with hops.” The result is a metallic-tasting salmon, so avoid hoppy IPAs with salmon-based poke.

With so many options, it can seem overwhelming to find the perfect match, but experimentation is the best way to discover your favorite pairing. Any excuse to go back for more poke is welcome in our book. And remember, when in doubt, it’s hard to go wrong with craft pilsners or other golden lagers and a big bowl of ahi poke.

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