Prosciutto is freakin’ delicious. You’d be hard pressed to find a carnivore who doesn’t agree. As a stand-alone appetizer or the accent to a larger dish, the thin-sliced Italian ham is cured -- not cooked -- for a uniquely salty-sweet flavor and buttery texture. And in my opinion, the best stuff comes from the city of Parma in Emilia-Romagna, where Italian-born-and-bred pigs are fed Parmigiano Reggiano whey, and dry, aromatic breezes from the Apennine Mountains create pristine conditions for natural curing.
In a word, Prosciutto di Parma is perfection.
But you can’t go to all of that trouble curing the perfect ham only to wash it down all willy-nilly. If you’re going to dine on the finest swine known to man, you’ve got to pay respect to where it came from with an indigenous brew. Just as I wouldn’t dare chase a Maine lobster roll with anything but a Maine Beer Co. Peeper Ale, or scarf down a Belgian waffle without a Westvleteren 12 in hand (I only eat waffles once every six years), I believe Prosciutto di Parma should ideally be paired with Italian-brewed beer. The only question is, which one?
While Italy’s wine has long overshadowed its beer, with mass-produced European pale lagers like Peroni and Moretti comprising the vast majority of the country’s sales, Italy’s craft scene has been growing at an explosive rate in recent years, allowing for more variety than ever before. Best of all, plenty of these beers -- even some of the smaller independent brands -- are now distributed in larger American cities such as New York and Los Angeles.
So I decided to take advantage of this boom, and do a bit of experimenting: I rounded up five very different Italian brews of various styles to taste alongside Prosciutto di Parma. Below are my findings, recapped and rated so that you can recreate the best pairings yourself.
(Keep in mind, I’m not rating the beers -- I’m rating their compatibility with the prosciutto!)
Euro pale lager
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The crisp, simple brew you’ll find in any New York City pizzeria isn’t too different from a typical American commercial lager: its bland profile makes for easy-drinking, though it seems to be a bit mustier than its Yankee counterparts. Its fizzy carbonation does manage to refresh the palate after each salty bite of Prosciutto di Parma, but the beer doesn’t have quite enough hops, alcohol, or body to cut through the fat of the ham.
Sure, it’s a lager (i.e. bottom-fermented at cooler temperatures) -- but with its maltier profile and amber color to match, this medium-bodied brew offers plenty of toasted bread in its aroma, followed by traces of caramel and a touch of honey on the palate. The Vienna malts perfectly match the sweetness of the meat, and an ever-so-subtle herbal hop bitterness prevents sweeter elements from overpowering. Love the balance here -- I could sip and eat these two all day!
Now here’s a weighty lager: Rich and intense, with an incredibly deep malt flavor and healthy dose of bitterness for balance, this German-inspired brew is packed with dark fruit and roasted malt notes. At 7.2% ABV, it’s got more alcohol than the previous entries, too. However, with less carbonation and a higher level of sweetness, the beer slightly overwhelms the more delicate prosciutto. It would likely pair better with a cooked, caramelized meat like roast pork.
Pink pepper IPA
Brewed with Brazilian pink peppercorns, Almond ‘22’s Pink IPA unsurprisingly features a spicy, earthy, herbal nose. With a touch of grapefruit on the palate and very dry, bitter finish, it’s a pleasantly complex beer -- but I’m not sure it works with prosciutto. While both the meat and beverage are awesome individually, both are kind of doing their own thing here; not really complementing one another very well.
Almond’s barleywine has a lower ABV than is typical of the style, but it packs plenty of malt flavor, along with some burnt caramel notes and a dry finish. It’s fairly straight down the middle palate-wise: not too intense, and the malt backbone supports the sweetness and the texture of the prosciutto. But it’s also lacking some bite and body -- perhaps another, more traditional barleywine would go better with the ham? Ultimately, it can't beat the amber lager!