Cindy Cox-Siedlarz considers herself a crafty person, skilled at creating costumes, scrapbooking memories and crocheting and knitting clothing. But of all her creations, one has a particularly lasting impact, and it has nothing to do with cloth, yarn or household items. Instead, this art is more about sweet and salty with a touch of savory for good measure.
Cox-Siedlarz is a whiz when it comes to the art of wearable food, which can be as ubiquitous at beer festivals as beards or brewery T-shirts. When her twin sons, Dustin and Zachary, head off to this year’s Great American Beer Festival, it’ll be the sixth straight year the pair and their friends don edible necklaces created by their mom—and it’s not just pretzels, either.
“There are certain things that are always on there—cheese sticks and Slim Jims are always available,” says Cox-Siedlarz, who lives in Denver, like her sons. “One time I found pre-made hot dogs in buns, and last year I found as many foods as I could with bacon, because the boys are bacon fanatics.”
In fact, there’s a detailed science to it, Cox-Siedlarz says, noting the importance of “spacers” to break out different food flavors that might pair with certain kinds of beers. String cheeses, crackers and bags of nuts provide options among meats or pretzels, but there’s also a physics lesson to be had. Because each necklace may weight up to 3 pounds, Cox-Siedlarz will evenly distribute food weight and in past years has added pads to rest on the back of necklaces to provide comfort for Dustin and Zachary’s necks.
It’s all very practical, really. Food readily available just inches from your mouth combats inevitable munchies while also helping to ward off a hard beer buzz by keeping a belly full. There are other benefits, too.
“I picked up a girl once because of it,” says Cindy’s son Dustin. “She was giving me a compliment about the necklace, and we got to talking, so I got her phone number. Having this elaborate necklace is like having a little puppy dog.”
For years, pretzel necklaces have been a mainstay of beer lovers as a way to snack while they sip at festivals. Nancy Johnson, event director for the Brewers Association, says that pretzel necklaces became common at GABF in the late 1990s. Since then, events have shown that beer lovers are getting more inventive with their culinary creations, proving they can be part fashion accessory, part dangling charcuterie and a surefire way to show some personality.
At All About Beer’s World Beer Festival in Durham, North Carolina, last year, Austin Geisler decided to make his first-ever wearable food piece extra special. In 2014, during his first time at the beer event, he and his girlfriend didn’t realize wearing pretzel-laced jewelry was so popular until they spotted necklaces everywhere. When they returned in 2015, they came prepared.
“We felt like rookies that first time, so we definitely wanted to do something for the next year,” says Geisler, a Garner, North Carolina, resident.
Using royal blue pipe cleaners and some ribbon, he constructed a pretzel bow tie for the 2015 festival, earning high-fives for creativity from passersby as he nibbled on his wearable snack. Best of all, the ingenuity didn’t stop there. For a different festival this spring, Geisler made his own necklace, this time focusing on mixing sweet and salty aspects by alternating pretzels with Froot Loops cereal.
“I thought the sweet cereal might be a nice change-up, and it ended up being a good palate cleanser, like a nice sorbet,” he says with a laugh. “I definitely wasn’t feeling like a newb anymore.”
Geisler’s transition from unknowing festival-goer to pairing pro highlights an important part of a well-constructed food necklace—it can act as more than something to fill your belly. In a 2012 study published in Current Biology, a team of researchers from Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center found a positive reaction among study participants when mixing and matching astringent tastes with fatty ones.
In short, finding balance between perceived flavors of food and drink can act as a palate cleanser, as well as boost the sensation of one or the other. Chewing on salty pretzels mixes with the bitterness of an IPA, or a bite of meat or string cheese might mix well with a porter or stout.
So while pretzels may be the go-to option when stringing foods around your neck, some variety can be a good thing.
“Generally, foods that have a higher fat content and are a little richer are going to tone down a beer that might be more intense on hops or alcohol heat,” says Brad Todd, co-owner of Milwaukee’s Stubby’s Gastrogrub & Beer Bar, where he acts as beer buyer and collaborative partner for beer pairings and dinners. “Maybe go with some jerky because spice can sometimes accentuate hops or chocolate-covered pretzels for sweet and salty components to go with a stout.”
Ready to step outside the box? Try empanadas, a bread or pastry dish stuffed with anything from meat to cheese to fruit.
“They’re a very portable food, which makes festivals easy, and you can hit a diverse flavor spectrum,” Todd says. “They’re self-contained and offer a base of carbs with all sorts of deliciousness inside.”
Or, for the sake of ease, start with a hole puncher and see what fits on a string. Trial and error is what led Alex Vere Nicoll to move beyond just pretzels for his annual visit to the Great American Beer Festival. Now he’ll clip away at packaged foods to build a necklace of pretzels, jerky, graham crackers, Goldfish crackers, nuts and more.
Vere Nicoll, a Denver resident, says his favorite samples to try at GABF are high-octane double IPAs, so he needs to keep his stomach filled if he wants to avoid stumbling through a four-hour session.
“You don’t want to lose an hour waiting in line for a hot dog when you can snack on what’s around your neck,” he says.
At last year’s GABF, Nicoll spotted one attendee sporting a food necklace featuring cooked steak and bacon, so he’s considering something similar for this year’s trip. That kind of panache isn’t overboard, Nicoll says; it’s the natural progression of a veteran beer festival fan.
“I remember one time I was standing in line with friends, and an older couple saw my necklace and asked if that was our dinner,” he recalls. “They said, ‘We remember what it’s like to be a college kid on a budget.’ We’re not college kids. We just know how to do a beer festival right.”
Bryan Roth is a North Carolina-based writer. Find him tweeting about beer @bryandroth.