The scene in my mind goes like this:
Summer on Cape Cod towards the end of the day, the sun hangs low in the sky. The charcoal has been lit for dinner and fresh corn still needs to be shucked. The adults are sitting on the patio holding glasses filled with some pale straw yellow beverage made from fermeted grape juice. Then, someone appears from the house with a bowl of freshly steamed clams. The big bowl is filled to the brim with open shells as steam dances and dissipates into the warm air.
Hands dive into the bowl, the fleshy meat is plucked out by thumb and forefingers, juices licked away, empty shells tossed into a second bowl that quickly fills. A dozen people, three-dozen clams gone in a matter of minutes. Appetizer finished. Dishes cleared, glasses refilled, twilight arrives and dinner still to come.
Years later, as an adult, I would repeat the same ritual—same house, same patio, even the same big bowl. This time, however, I substituted the wine with craft beer.
Much thought went into the beer selection. I wanted something that would complement the sweetness of the little neck clams and play well with the salty overtones. I ruled out Pale Ales and IPAs due to their bitterness. As this was for a dinner, I wanted something with a little more heft than a traditional blonde ale. A stout, perhaps? They pair well with oysters, but on a warm summer day, I wasn’t in the mood for something overly malty. In the end, I decided on an American Wheat beer, unfiltered, with a nice balance between the yeast and malt. Unlike German Hefeweizens, American Wheat beers do not have the banana and clove notes, but tend to have a bit more citrus behind them. That, for me, worked better with the flavor and seasoning of the clams.
More and more American craft breweries are beginning to offer American Wheat style beers. Some notable choices include Three Floyds Brewing Co.’s Gumballhead, Southern Tier Brewing Company’s Hop Sun and Harpoon Brewery’s UFO. Each beer, unique in their own way, offers a broad range of flavors that will pair excellently with these pocket watch-sized bivalve.
- When it comes to clams, there are both hard and soft shelled varieties. The hard-shell kind live along the ocean buried deep in the sand.
- Fresh clams can be found at your local seafood store or grocer. Look for those packed on ice. I prefer littleneck clams as they are ridiculously easy to prepare.
- The beauty of the jet age is that fresh seafood is available in practically every part of the country, meaning one does not have to be on the Cape to enjoy this great summer treat.
- IMPORTANT: Clams that do not open after steaming or cooking for a few minutes should be thrown away.
- Scrub the clams under cold water to remove any sand or dirt.
- Sauté an onion, adding fresh thyme and about a half inch of beer (Hefeweizen or other low IBU craft beer) into the pot.
- Warm the broth and add the clams. Steaming should only take a minute or two.
- When the clams open, they are done.
- Once all the clams have been steamed remove the broth, mix with two tablespoons of butter and ad fresh chopped parsley to create a dipping sauce.
- Transfer to a smaller bowl, allowing you to enjoy the dipping sauce with the clams.
- Pair with your favorite American Wheat or experiment with other craft beer styles that will help highlight and complement the flavors from these fresh morsels.
A frequent contributor to the New York Times, John Holl travels the country chronicling American craft beer and the culture of drinking. A journalist since 1996, he has worked for the Star-Ledger of Newark, The Indianapolis Star and regularly writes for a number of magazines, newspapers and web sites.
Holl lives in New Jersey and is co-author of a soon-to-be published book on Indiana breweries. He may be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @John_Holl.