Anatomy of a Beer Dinner, Part 3 (Acid)

It’s been 5 years since Part 2 came out; that’s roughly 17 Bier Stein beer dinners if you count time that way. In that span, I’ve thought way too much about beer and food pairing (next on Weird Tales: The Curse of the Cicerone…), and given the “complement, contrast, cut” routine so many times I should have it tattooed on my tongue.

That routine, however, became too simple in 2015 when Tiffany at Party Downtown blew my mind with her wizardry. I’d brought a bunch of interesting German and Belgian beers to try, and we selected a handful to pair. Tiffany proceeded to create a menu of wild-harvested, fermented, smoked, sauced ingredients that, when paired with the beers, completed a jigsaw puzzle I didn’t even know was missing pieces. Lots of photos here.

Her deftness with acid was what got me. Although it’s never wise to focus on one aspect of a pairing – the idea is to create a sum-of-the-parts effect, not shine a spotlight – I hadn’t considered the fundamental importance of acid in a pairing before. So, here goes *quickly bones up on pH/TA lingo*:

Beer, like most non-water beverages, is acidic. There are something like a dozen different acids present in beer, each of which has a characteristic affect on the way our tongues perceive its acidity. Think of each acid as a different texture. Is it crunchy, smooth, bright, sharp, brittle? Think of lemons, vinegar, rhubarb, apples; those fruits contain different acids of varying pH that give those things a primary taste and texture – citric, acetic, oxalic, and malic. The higher concentration of an acid, the more you’re going to feel it.

Then, add in the other variables of sugar, fat, starch, all of which affect the way you taste. Complicated, eh?

So you’ve got your beer, but you have to pair it. What story do you want to tell with your pairing? Is it a short story with a cheery ending, or an epic? The acid balance will be a key character in your story. Here’s a nerdy story I’ve adapted from the Party dinner menu:

Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel, a billowy, malty beer with banana and clove and a little twang at the end, walks down a trail in the Oregon woods in the spring. It fills a picnic basket with dainty creatures: rhubarb, wood sorrel. It makes a garland of wild onion flowers. The rhubarb and sorrel, both containing oxalic acid, are cheery, fruity little guys. The onion flowers are fragrant, a little musky perfume around the beer’s wrist.

The beer reaches into the picnic basket and pulls out lunch: a smoked goat croquette, rich, buttery, and a little funky. Now we smell the smoke and clove, two related aromas, intensifying each other and conspiring with the rich toasty malt to make the beer sleepy. But the plucky rhubarb and sorrel, confident their flavors outweigh their size, take a heroic leap and swing off the onion flower garland like Tarzan! They’ve saved the day by brightening up all those flavors, the way a good garnish should. The last word is had by the bubbles, the carbonic acid, that clear debris off the trail ahead. “One more bite!”

dinner_alesong1Now back to “reality.” On August 15, at the Alesong beer dinner at The Bier Stein (for which I helped develop the pairings), a vichyssoise (chilled potato leek soup) with a dash of white pepper and matchstick-cut pickled beets was paired with Peche, a vibrant, tinglingly acidic beer.

Now we’re combining acids: the lactic and malic acids in the beer with acetic acid in the pickles. It didn’t take a lot for an intense reaction, but the soup’s creamy texture and coolness stopped the effect from getting out of hand. The pepper was essential – the “fulcrum” element – to tasting the beer and food in harmony, as it latched on to some of the fermentation and barrel character in the Peche.

So now when I talk about pairing, I talk about acidity, texture (crunch!), earthiness or brightness, and try to include all of the elements of taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami) in some sort of harmony. What that harmony is (is it a Bach harmony or a Ornette Coleman harmony?) depends on the beer. Thankfully, I get to work with people who are able to translate my nonsense into actually edible food. So you can, you know, eat.

I’ll have a more concrete writeup about this year’s fall harvest beer dinner at Falling Sky soon; I was not involved in the planning, just enjoyed the meal. It was a great example of the “food first” method, for its display of the chef’s intuition and adeptness with flavors as well as some moments that could have used more consideration of the beer.

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