The Absolute Best Type Of Beer To Use For Cooking Mussels And Clams

Sometimes making a great dish is as simple as combining two of the things you do best, and if you happen to be Belgian that means mussels (or clams) and beer. Mollusks are a classic comfort food along the northern European coasts of France and Belgium where a big pot of the bivalves in an irresistible briny broth is often served alongside a plate of fries and aioli. Also known as moules marinières, or "sailor-style mussels," it's a dish as simple as it is delicious, with mussels steamed in a basic mix of alcohol and aromatics for just long enough to open the shells. The broth can be white wine or cider, but how can anyone dining on a Belgian favorite like this ignore the possibilities brought by the unofficial world champion of beer? Of course, with beer there are many possible choices, so Tasting Table asked Bart van Olphen, chef, cookbook author, sustainable seafood expert, and the co-founder of Sea Tales, for his expert opinion on which beer works best with mussels and clams.

The chef had a number of suggestions for beer and mussels depending on your tastes; his first choice was white beer, which he described as "a light, cloudy, and refreshing wheat beer with a fruity taste." For a similar experience, but with more maltiness and a little bit of bitterness, van Olphen also likes the moderately bitter taste of blonde beers. "These flavors can enhance the mussels' natural sweetness and salty, sea-like flavor," he said.

Light, fruity beers are complex but still let the mussels shine

While white and blonde beers are common styles, Bart van Olphen picked a true Belgian original with his final suggestion. According to him, "Tripels (I love them) often have a complex flavor profile with hints of fruitiness, spiciness, and sweetness, which go well with clams' natural salty and savory taste." These brews are a variety of Belgian Trappist abbey-style beers that are golden in color and produced for drinkability. Some recognizable brands are imports like Chimay, and several American brands like Allagash and New Belgium produce their own popular versions. Tripels are high in alcohol-by-volume, ranging up to 10% ABV. Per van Olphen, "The more alcohol in the beverage, the more dominant the flavor of it in the dish."

However, this chef is always focused on the mussels first, and while you certainly want a flavorful beer, he cautioned against going too strong. When asked about dark beers versus light beers he said that it depends on your taste, adding that "light beer will give the mussels or clams a slight touch; darker beer will provide a stronger flavor." But for his own preference, van Olphen sticks with lighter beers. "When I cook clams or mussels, I would rather use light beer, so I will be able to taste the mussels in the most natural way," he explained. In essence, the alcohol is there to complement the mussels, not be the star itself.