Fennel. Truffles. Peanut Satay. These are flavors one would expect to find at a posh eatery, not while walking down the snack aisle. But those types of tastes are helping shape a gourmet popcorn revolution that’s redefining the salty snack category. And there’s no person who’s tasted more of these mindbending flavors than Kevin Pyles, the man behind the definitive popcorn review source Pop Blog.
“You can use a crappy kernel and great ingredients or you can use a great kernel variety and mediocre ingredients, but this won’t create great gourmet popcorn,” says Pyles, who estimates he’s tasted over 400 kinds of popcorn from 100 different companies over the past decade. “The key is to have both: a great, consistent popcorn kernel and a ‘wow-factor’ combination of the best ingredients you can find.”
Pyles says that the drive to find that wow factor has allowed popcorn pioneers to break away from the pack. “There are only a handful of companies who push the envelope when it comes to creating new popcorn flavors. It’s a big challenge. It certainly costs more, but it’s worth it if it’s done right.”
Pyles is bullish on the flavors still to come. “The future is bright for gourmet popcorn,” he says. We asked him to pick a few absolute standouts, then took those flavors to Chicago sommelier and friend of Ribera y Rueda Charles Ford with a Spanish wine challenge: Match these complex combinations with red Ribera del Dueros and white Ruedas. What Ford came up with are pairings that will help you get more out of every handful.
Pinkelton’s creation is inspired by champurrado, a Mexican beverage similar to hot cocoa. Ford says that since “popcorn is a difficult combo with red wine, Pingón’s rich Reserva can make sure the “flavors and body are on the same level.”
Poplandia in Portland stuns with a Black Truffle Sea Salt treat. “It’s easy to take advantage with the Poplandia pairing,” Ford says, selecting a verdejo from Shaya to play co-star. “Barrel fermenting can impart an umami profile into a wine, which, when matching with truffles is perfect.”
Pyles’ vouches for Just Pop In’s milk chocolate caramel and Ford sees a hearty red, the Lopez Cristobal Bagus, making the best match. “There are those who love chocolate and wine and for this, it’s a big wine with a creamy mouth feel.”
Seattle’s KuKuRuZa loads up a Hawaiian Salted Caramel popcorn with Hawaiian Alaea sea salt that stuns Pyles. Ford thinks of the popcorn as a gateway to the flavor of the islands. “Tropical flavors combined with a downright tropical wine. Huge components of super-ripe pineapple coming off of this wine.”
Washington D.C.’s Popcorn Queens make a Cranberry-Orange loaded with caramel and crunchy pistachio. “Vidal Soblechero is about as quirky and original as it gets in regards to Rueda whites. This team does it the old fashioned way, and their wines have attitude to boot The true definition of matching body with body for a quirky popcorn flavor.”
Maryland’s CrunchDaddy makes a Honey & Cinnamon Crunch loaded with wild clover honey that’s made Pyles “must list.” Ford says the Naia Verdejo “has had the touch of barrel aging that’s exactly what the honey notes from the popcorn are begging for.”
Pyles comes back for a second helping of CrunchDaddy, this time their Gingerbread Cookie Crunch. “Pair a heritage style of popcorn with a heritage style of Verdejo. The folks at Mocen have an incredible knack for keeping tradition not only in their winery, but within the wines as well.”
Popcorn Passion hails from New Hampshire and their Fennel Caramel has made quite an impression of Pyles. “You really could go both ways with this pairing,” says Ford. “But try to step outside the box with this one. An older vintage of Tinto Pesquera has beautiful aromas of green herbs, anise, and licorice. A perfect accent to fennel and caramel.”
Joe and Seph have set the popcorn world on fire with snacks riffing on flavors ranging from cocktails (Gin & Tonic and Mojito) to Camembert Cheese). While Pyles suggests trying them all, he thinks their Thai Style Peanut Satay is a knockout. Ford goes verdejo to match the Asian flavors. “Has hints of lemongrass and ginger, two perfect sidekicks to a popcorn laced with Thai Peanut Satay.”
Traditional Banana Toffee is the latest creation from Rhode Island popcorn wizards Biggest Little Popcorn Co. Banana brings Ford right back to Rueda. “Tropical flavors are abundant not only this popcorn but also Emina’s Prestigio.”
Read Kevin’s popcorn reviews at The Pop Blog.