Since he first opened Uncle Ramen back in 2012, restaurateur Tommy Lee has kept an eye out for beers that pair well with his earthy, savory and sometimes spicy dishes. But it hasn’t been easy. Some cuisines make simpler matches than others, and ramen noodles, with their depth of flavor, can be tough.
One of the breweries that Lee and his staff have leaned on more recently is Finkel & Garf Brewing, which opened four years ago in Boulder. Uncle, which unveiled its second location, in Washington Park West, in July, has had Finkel & Garf's IPA on tap for several years — the only IPA it serves — and regularly buys the brewery's tart or sour offerings.
Not only that, but Finkel & Garf’s owner, Dan Garfinkel, is a regular at Uncle, Lee says, so “we have built a good relationship” over the years. As a result, they started talking about making a beer together six months ago, and bounced ideas around with Uncle’s beverage manager.
“The goal of having a beer with both of our names on it is that it had to work with the type of food they make, so when we started brewing sours, it really struck a chord,” explains Garfinkel. In particular, the brewery’s line of “sorbet sours,” which are tart fruit beers with a smooth mouthfeel, seemed like they would pair well with ramen and Uncle’s expanding variety of other dishes.
“They loved our hibiscus passion fruit and cherry sours, so the next step was to find a fruit that worked,” Garfinkel notes. That fruit turned out to be South American lulo, which looks like an orange on the outside but is green on the inside. It has, according to the brewer, “incredibly complex and fascinating” notes of rhubarb and pineapple along with citrus.
It worked. “But then we needed another element to take it to the next level,” Garfinkel continues. The answer was Lemondrop hops, a variety known for its bright lemon character — something he describes as having a “Jolly Rancher element.” It complemented both the lulo and Uncle's flavors.
The resulting beer, he says, was perfect. “The goal was to create something with enough tartness that it helped the food shine rather than overwhelming it or killing the palate," the brewer continues. "I’d call it refreshingly tart. Reed Grogan [Uncle's beverage manager] is a classically trained chef, so he helped guide me in terms of what elements they were looking for. I would say we nailed it.”
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"We also kept the ABV down [5 percent] to be easy-drinking with all types of flavors," Lee adds.
The resulting beer, Dry Hopped Lulo Sour, is indeed easy to drink. It most resembles a Berliner weisse, with a wheat profile backed by the mildly tart kettle-souring process and the clear but subtle flavor of lulo, which comes out more as the beer warms. The hops provide a lemony backdrop without being bitter.
The final piece: a sweet can design that incorporates Uncle's "Ramen Saves" motto and its ramen-bowl graphic, and an amazing marketing photo from BeerBreathCo, a local merchandising and photography firm that specializes in craft beer and studio photos (sometimes of things exploding). Garfinkel says he asked Lee if it would be all right to blow up one of his ramen bowls. The answer can be seen above.
Dry Hopped Lulo Sour will go on tap today at Finkel & Garf (5455 Spine Road in Boulder), and it will be served in cans at both Uncle locations (2215 West 32nd Avenue and 95 South Pennsylvania Street) starting this Saturday, September 7. It may also find its way into a few liquor stores in Denver and Boulder. Since the brewery made a double batch, Lee says he hopes the beer will last four to six months at the restaurant. After that, both businesses will look at whether customers appreciated the pairing and whether or not to brew it again.