It’s hard to get people excited about bitter. Less alluring than sweet, less addicting than salty, bitter is that kid who’s always sharing weird-but-fascinating facts about things that you never knew interested you. But as the success of intensely-hopped IPAs shows, the American palate is finally seeing the value of this underappreciated tasting note; we need bitter to balance our meals, even if we don’t realize it.
The importance of this powerful flavor has been well known in other cuisines for years. Italian amari, or potable bitters often served as an aperitif or digestif, have become increasingly popular in the United States over the last decade. But recently, amari’s French cousin, the amer, began making its mark.
Amers, the gentian-based French spirits hailing from Alsace, were a popular pre-Prohibition sip, and an essential component to classic cocktails such as the Brooklyn. Amer importation ceased with Prohibition and never resumed, and the liqueurs were largely forgotten in the U.S. But amers have recently been brought back to the U.S. market, and it’s opened up a new, better-balanced world of pairing possibilities.
Imagine pancakes drenched in maple syrup without coffee to offset the sugar, or a gin and tonic without the bitter bite of quinine. Give these pairings a chance, and soon you won’t be able to imagine eating ribs without a chaser of Wolfamer.
Bitterness is indispensable for balance. It may be an acquired taste, but embrace it, in all its weird, wonderful glory, and you’ll find that just the right amount of bitter makes the rest that much sweeter.
Finding food to complement such an intense flavor may seem daunting at first, but for amer novices, the combination might actually make the drink more palatable: food scientists have found that salt suppresses bitterness. And the flavor of the amer can bring balance, or even unexpected brightness, to a variety of dishes. Here are some combinations to try out:
No region better understands the importance of bitterness than Asia, where dishes embrace the interplay of strong flavors that many cuisines shy away from. Amer Gingembre, with its warm bite of ginger and bitter kick of gentian, beautifully complements equally bold dishes like curries, spicy crustacean preparations, and potstickers. It’s also an intriguing partner to hearty foods like jambalaya, where its sharpness acts as a counterweight to the rich meatiness.
Think that amers can’t get down and dirty? Not so. The bright citrus and spicy coriander notes of Wolfamer are ideal for pairing with the quintessential American food: barbecue. Try it alongside ribs, Buffalo wings or jalapeno poppers and see what great allies France and the United States really are.
That doesn’t mean that Wolfamer has forgotten its roots, though. It cuts through a creamy foie gras with ease, and is a classic pairing with the Alsatian tarte flambée (Don’t feel like attempting your own tarte? Try a ham-and-black olive pizza for a similar result).
An American-made spin on the traditional amer, Hiver Amer is heavy on wintery baking spices, particularly cinnamon. Those spices make it a natural partner for desserts: it blends perfectly with the rich flavors of a warm chocolate souffle, and provides a lovely contrast to something like stone fruit with ice cream.
This particular spirit has a cult following among tiki enthusiasts, which means that it’s delicious when served with the American-Chinese food that’s often a staple of tiki bars. Sip Hiver Amer in drinks alongside pork fried rice and note how the bitter, spicy spirit adds a layer of complexity to the meal.
Translating literally to “bitter flower of joy,” this amer is unusual because its base is beer brandy. Yup, just like wine can be distilled and become brandy, so can beer. The malty, hoppy notes that underlie the cinnamon and bitter cinchona bark make it ideal for serving with carbonnade, a Flemish beef-and-beer stew with a kick of brown sugar and vinegar. The subtle citrus flavors are also drawn out beautifully when paired with roasted poultry.