In the fifth installment of Beyond the Boilermaker, Gray Chapman challenges three bartenders to pair the spirit of the moment, rum, with its beer counterpart.
It is perhaps one of the world’s most complex spirits. It has, in the last few years, exploded in popularity. It is the obsession of countless beverage nerds, bartenders and authors. Rum is amidst a serious renaissance, and with production methods that vary wildly and practically no unified code on how the spirit should be made, the category has become more diverse than ever. Some are caramelized and spiced; others are clean and stark or grassy and herbaceous. Some are aged, some aren’t. Some are for sipping, others are strictly for lighting things on fire. Many are made with fermented molasses, while the agricoles of the French Caribbean are made with fresh-pressed cane juice. Together, they comprise probably the single most diverse grouping of spirits in the drinking world. But do any of them pair well with beer?
Yes and no: There is, in fact, some historical precedent, says rum expert Martin Cate, the founder of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and the author of a James Beard Award-winning book on the subject. “There was a popular drink in the colonial tavern era called a flip, made with rum and beer,” he says. But, he admits, “It's not very good.” Pairing rum with beer is a rather esoteric quest, Cate says, and can be finicky to get right—even though certain rums have flavor profiles that seem logically suited for beer, from warm baking spices to grassy notes reminiscent of hops.
Sometimes a good rum-beer pairing simply comes down to provenance, or pairing products from the same region. “I find that when visiting a place, one should take in the best flavors that specific place has to offer,” says Konrad Kantor of Cane & Table in New Orleans. In other words, pairing a Brazilian cachaca like Avua Amburana with Brazilian Xingu beer or sipping Mount Gay XO alongside its Barbadian counterpart, Banks Lager.
In general, Kantor says, spirits that are less sweet, not well aged or cut with added sugar are ideal for pairing with beer. He adds that the most successful rum-beer pairings work because the beers is refreshing and well-balanced, while the rum is dry, yet robust. That balance is important to Joshua Fryer, beverage director of 8Arm in Atlanta. Whether you’re going for flavors that complement or contrast, he recommends finding a beer that helps mellow out the flavor of the spirit without overpowering it. Putting a super bitter double IPA up against a heavy, spiced rum is a battle no one will win.
Lagers and Pilsners
Crisp, clean lagers and pilsners seem to be the unanimous choice for pairing with beer. “Personally, I tend to think that most rums pair well with crisp lagers,” says Cate. Plus, he adds, it just makes sense: Lagers tend to be the beer of choice throughout the Caribbean. Kantor suggests pairing Victoria, a light Mexican Vienna-style lager, with Oaxacan rum Paranubes. Fryer has a few tricks up his sleeve for pairing rum with beer, but the simple, clean slate of pilsner is a favorite. He particularly enjoys Three Taverns Prince of Pilsen, a dry-hopped pilsner with a hint of citrus, alongside a high-proof rum, such as Foursquare 2004 Exceptional Cask Series.
Fryer notes that a classic Hefeweizen often shares a surprising flavor note with certain rums: bananas. High-ester Jamaican rums are known for their redolent funk or “hogo,” a byproduct of a production method involving open, stinky fermentation pits. One of the most common manifestations of this process is the smell of overripe bananas, which just so happens to also pop up in traditional Bavarian hefs, alongside clove and bubblegum. Try a funky rum like Smith & Cross or J. Wray & Nephew alongside a traditional hefeweizen like Weihenstephaner for smooth sailing. Side note: While not a high-ester Jamaican rum, the Stiggins’ Fancy Plantation Pineapple from Maison Ferrand is made by steeping pineapple rinds and flesh in rum, and when paired with hefeweizen’s banana and subtle baking spice, would make for a tiki-worthy duo.
Sours and Wild Ales
The tartness of a dry-hopped sour is a worthy counterpart to rhum agricole, a French Caribbean rum style produced with fresh-pressed cane juice rather than molasses. Agricole’s complexity and bracing freshness is usually described as grassy, vegetal and funky. In one of Fryer’s favorite rum-beer duos, he pairs an agricole like 100 Proof Neisson Rhum Agricole Blanc alongside Stillwater’s Insetto American wild ale. “The tart and salty notes of the sour ale pair really well with the grassy, papaya, and rubber notes of the Rhum.”
For rums on the darker end of the spectrum, a sturdy, dark porter can stand up to the task well. Fryer says he likes his with Demarara rums, which are made in British Guyana alongside the cane sugar of the same name, and are known for being rich and smooth. Just make sure your beer doesn’t veer too far into the sweet side of the flavor spectrum: Cate says they once partnered with a local brewery to create a vanilla porter specifically to pair with their molasses-based rums, but some customers claimed the combo was too sweet, and the bar discontinued it.
Rum Barrel-Aged Beers
From bourbon to barleywine, breweries are thinking outside the box with the types of barrels they choose to age their beers in. Nowadays, there’s a small but respectable roster of beers rested in rum casks, and Cate points out that this growing niche of beer would be a natural fit for pairing with rum, for obvious reasons. Try the Innis & Gunn Rum Cask Oak Aged Beer alongside a mellow, aged sipping rum—perhaps one aged in sherry casks or bourbon barrels, just for fun—and see where it takes you.