Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell declared April 26th as National Pretzel Day in 2003. In honor of this holiday, we’ve put together some quick tips for pairing pretzels with beer.
Pretzels are a classic companion to beer. Most commonly found at beer festivals, where pretzel necklaces have become ubiquitous.
But, that’s not the only way you can pair beer with these salty twists.
So we thought it would be fitting to sit down with Pennsylvania brewer and pretzel aficionado Paul Schneider, head of brewing operations at Cinderlands Beer Co., for some insight into what makes beer and pretzels such a can’t-miss combination.
First, A Few Quick Thoughts on the Modern Pretzel Necklace
The pretzel necklace remains a kind of religion for some of today’s festival-goers. Ostensibly, the purpose is to clear your palate between different samples and keep a little bit of food in your stomach. But this doesn’t quite explain the intricate display of pretzels, cheese, dried meats, and other miscellaneous snacks that some folks are willing to string around their necks for a whole afternoon.
“Pretzel necklaces say, ‘I’m prepared. I’m festive. I have enough to share,'” says Schneider. “Truly the mark of someone who takes festival fun seriously-ish.”
The most elaborate one he’s seen? “A necklace of a dozen or so big, soft pretzels accessorized by a mustard-filled fanny pack,” says Schneider. “Unreal!”
No judgment here. If you choose to rock a pretzel necklace at your next beer festival, just make sure to appreciate the wide world of flavor combinations that this glorious pairing makes possible.
Why Do Beer and Pretzels Work So Well?
“Really good pretzels have some whole-grain flavor, the right amount of chew, come out piping hot, and have just enough sea salt clinging to the light slathering of melted butter,” says Schneider. “It’s a simple and cozy flavor combination that just invites something else to pop; whether that’s elegant noble hops in a classic continental lager, acidity from something slightly sour, or fermentation character from Ardennes yeast.”
Cinderlands has two locations in Pittsburgh, the Warehouse and the Foederhouse, as well as a taproom in the city’s Wexford suburb. In addition to their phenomenal beers, food is a huge focus at the Pittsburgh-based brewery. Among the elevated bar snacks, handheld options, and fancier entrees, you’ll always find a pretzel on the menu.
The possibilities are endless. But let’s dive into a few, along with some pairing principles behind why they work so well.
Our 4 Favorite Beer and Pretzel Pairings
Beer Festival + Pretzel Necklace
Alright let’s just get this one out in the open first. This isn’t exactly a pretzel and beer pairing, but there is a definite reason why pretzel necklaces always show up at beer fests.
There’s a bit of religious history at play here. The shape of the pretzel itself is thought to mimic a child’s arms folded in prayer. In Germany, brewing monks understood the water, barley, and hops they used to make beer as a reflection of the holy trinity. The three loops or holes in pretzels symbolized this trinity as well. They began stringing pretzels together and wearing them around their necks. It was a way of showing faith and love for beer and pretzels all at once.
Lager + Classic Soft Pretzel
One of the mainstays of food and beverage pairing is to match intensity levels. So you can’t go wrong with a well-made German helles or Czech pils and a soft pretzel with a little bit of salt and a touch of buttery shine.
Lagers don’t slap you across the face with flavors. They’re just clean and drinkable: a sweetly simple malt profile and some balancing hop bitterness. The salt from the pretzel will not only make you thirsty, it’ll also accentuate the subtle yet brilliant components at play here.
Once you’ve found a lager + pretzel combination that you like, you can also try ramping up the flavors on both sides of the equation.
If you’re drinking a stronger, darker lager like a doppelbock, go with a hard pretzel that’s more darkly toasted, or one that’s made with a more complex grain such as pumpernickel.
Sour Beer + Pretzel with Mustard or Cheese
Enjoying your pretzel with some spicy mustard or melty cheese? Reach for something tart and acidic.
Here we get into the principles of complementary and contrasting flavors. Schneider points to Grizzled Canary, Cinderlands’ dry and tart farmhouse ale (also known as a grisette): “the acidity harmonizes with the snappy mustard and cuts against the rich beer cheese; it really works either way,” says Schneider.
Whatever your favorite style of sour beer—lambic, gose, mixed-culture saison, Flanders red—it’ll have a nice affinity with the savory mustard and will provide an enjoyable contrasting element to the fatty richness of the cheese.
Even a fruited sour beer would work well. Just be aware that these beers introduce a strong amount of sweetness into the picture. A pro move in this case would be to replace the traditional spicy mustard with a mostarda, which is a relish made with candied fruit, mustard, and wine or vinegar.
American Amber Ale + Cinnamon-Sugar Pretzel
How about some love for the gooey sweet pretzels we encounter at the airport, or maybe the ballpark? You know the ones we mean.
Schneider recommends American amber ale as the perfect foil. “The dream of the nineties is alive,” says Schneider.“Grab an Anderson Valley Boont and let those candied crystal malts draw out the sugary richness of the pretzel, but then cleanse the palate for the next bite.”
Sweet caramel malts aren’t as trendy as they used to be, but they work perfectly in an old-school amber ale. The all-around malt-forward profile pairs nicely with the churro-like flavors of a warm, sweet pretzel.
Anderson Valley’s Boont Amber is a classic choice. You could also go with a hoppier version of this style like Tröegs Hopback Amber or Bear Republic Red Rocket. As Schneider suggests, the bitter finish will refresh your palate. And the dank, resinous quality of hops like Chinook and Simcoe will be a good textural match for the sticky mouthfeel of the pretzel.