Category Archives: Pairings

Beer Pairing “Secrets”

I used to watch a lot of Food Network; Good Eats and Iron Chef America, on both sides of the entertainment spectrum, were my favorite. Alton Brown’s Mr. Wizard-like citizen science epitomized my ideal life in the kitchen; practical tools and a commercial-level know-how in a home setting appeal to my sense of efficiency and creativity. With Brown as host of the sequel to the original great cooking game show, with its dramatic lighting, swinging cameras, and do-or-die time constraints (I have since moved on to the placid, polite Great British Baking Show; I’m old), the competing chefs were mostly battling their own time management skills, while maintaining enough composure to manipulate and perfectly plate the secret ingredient. The words the judges used to describe and criticize the food informed my lexicon; I brought that to restaurants and, eventually, beer.

There are lots of ways to think about cooking and brewing, and a lot of those overlap; I enjoy dissecting a meal into its constituent flavors and tastes, and equating them to a beer. The reverse, starting with the beer (and a good conversational partner), is how I develop beer pairing menus. Rather than considering the ingredients themselves, recognizing texture, acidity, sweetness, bitterness, and the other basic sensations in the mouth help to find inspiration for what will be, at best, a dance between food and drink. Once those basics have been established, the flavor discussion follows.

Meat & cheese boards are great for exploring what works or doesn’t work in pairing. Try new things! Photo by Aaron Brussat

The chemical reactions that occur when pairing food and beer are too complicated to explain easily; I’m no scientist, but have practiced and read enough to understand that an acidic or highly carbonated beer will break apart the fatty proteins in a bite of a creamy dish (with a béchamel sauce, for example) and effectively clear the palate. Because creating a beer pairing is a very intentional act, all of these sorts of factors must be taken into account. The poetic limitations of pairing–choosing the right type of acid, adjusting the crunchiness or level of char–make it at once daunting and alluring. It’s like the prospect of having a threesome; adding a third person to an already complex act (emotionally, if not physically) increases the likelihood of mishap by 150%. Thankfully, our tastebuds are pretty forgiving.

A recent, quite random experience sums up how a high intensity beer pairing can go right. I was at a local brewery, chatting with the brewer about a batch of beer; it was the first generation yeast pitch for a hazy IPA (nerd alert!). My impression was of papaya, mango, orange, and some soft red apple yeast esters that added complexity. It finished on the bitter side, but had body. My friend had ordered a green curry with chicken from the food cart outside, and offered me a bite. The sauce had a building heat with its own fruitiness, but was tempered by the coconut milk, just enough so my tongue didn’t burn. Fortuitously, the IPA was a perfect pairing. Without the body provided by the yeast in suspension and a small dose of oats, the bitterness of the beer would have turned the heat up to 11 (I typically avoid bitter beer with spicy food; I find it unpleasant and over-filling). The fresh tropical character of the hops played into the complexity of the spices, and the soft carbonation washed just enough of the flavor off the palate that I wanted another bite. He let me finish the plate.

Had I been drinking a sour beer, the pairing would have been a disaster. A hefeweizen, still cloudy and full but much less intense, would have played well but not on all levels. Couldn’t have planned that one better.

From the Breakside beer dinner at The Bier Stein. The wild greens and jerk sauce played on different aspects of the Simba Saison’s hop & yeast character. The texture of the raw tuna helped smooth the dryness of the beer. Photo by Aaron Brussat


The Beer & Cheese Biz

How do you tell a story about pairing food? “Oh, you should have been there, in my mouth, as the Abbaye de St. Bon Chien broke holes like caul fat through the stinkiest cheese, so stinky you could smell it in your eyes, and it melted together like the Steadfast Tin Soldier and his parchment girlfriend…” Right.

I led my first beer & cheese pairing a couple weeks ago, so I’ve had a lot to process about the… process. As my own worst critic, I lose points for not filling all the seats (next time it will be pre-paid rather than COD), and for not being entirely prepared with a spiel about the nuances of eating and drinking simultaneously. (I’m not used to public speaking; when everybody’s quiet and starting at me, I wonder if they’re bored; and when they’re all talking I figure I may as well shut up.)

I tried to incite a sense of game– a solitaire or personal challenge– by using a scoring method I gleaned from pairings at Oakshire a few years ago. A grid was laid out with rows of beer and columns of cheese; each beer had a chance to be paired with each cheese, and a score of -2 to +2 filled in the corresponding boxes. Three elements of learning at work: deep thought about each pairing to develop a score; the best individual pairings would be readily apparent; and the total scores from each cheese and each beer would illuminate the most adaptable beer and cheese.


My success at getting the point across was in the B- range; the audience was 90% younger than I (20s), and largely inexperienced with pairing (obviously no fault of theirs; heck, I’m happy to have exposed them to the concept). I felt my job was to explain the intricacies of perception; how to taste food & beer at the same time, and how to look for resonance, contrast, and intensity levels in each item. Due to a spotty arrival rate, a 15 minute delay seemed to have made everybody hungry, so by the time I got started talking I felt rushed to get food in mouths. It was loud and hard to hear myself, so I moved it along, skimmed and stumbled over my bullet points, and didn’t get any real story in.

But everybody talked, about this and that; most utilized their grids– some even made artwork of them– and seemed generally satisfied at the end. The most well-received cheeses were , naturally, the most expensive. Ancient Heritage’s Valentine was a personal favorite, with rich creaminess and subtle funk; it brought some cream to the coffee of Pelican’s Tsunami Stout. The Full Circle Raw Sharp Cheddar was perhaps best at backing up the beers– I only chose one (Oakshire Amber) without a particularly strong flavor or set of flavors; perhaps a predilection to assume that other folks don’t enjoy subtlety as much as I.

In the meantime, I have discovered that Biere de Garde (at least my homebrewed version, which matches fairly well the flavors I recall from Tres Mont’s and Sans Culottes) goes well with a variety of cheeses, and so that style will make an appearance on a pairing list soon.

Of course, “If at first you have nominal success, do better next time!” as my inner old man says. Next time I’ll tell you a true story.






















Thanksgiving Beer Pairing Time!

You can smell it, walking down the streets of Eugene: fermentation. The aroma of leaves and apples on your neighbors’ lawns is the byproduct of the work of a whole civilization of bacteria, yeast, little bugs, and fungus breaking down the summer’s bounty into next year’s tilth. Those aromas, the ebbing daylight, the imminent rains: signals to bundle up and share warmth with our friends. This is epic meal time.

To paraphrase a superhero movie: With great flavor comes great pairing opportunity. Yes, that was a terrible paraphrasing, but let’s keep moving. The impending feast and its traditional accouterments lay out a gauntlet of flavors, all at once, that can be hard to navigate. Additionally, the imagery of a stuffed Thanksgiving table presents a limited view of acceptable beverages– carafes of wine in straw diapers astride cranberries, corn, and sweet potatoes tilt the tables away from a more versatile and traditional drink (I think we all know where I’m going with this).

I’ve been thinking about what beers I want to bring to Thanksgiving dinner. The hosts are vegetarian; I probably won’t  be bringing a smoked porter. But when I think of turkey, I feel it’s fairly forgiving, and pretty much absorbs whatever you put on it. It can (but hopefully doesn’t) turn out somewhat dry, which I’d want to counter with a fuller-bodied beer. IPA would be fine, if you must; Sam Smith’s IPA has plenty of body, and enough hop presence to liven up a bite of turkey or salad.

The real challenge is to find a couple beers that will pair well with most anything on the Turkeyday table, and IPA is a little too specific. My first inclination is to save the rich and sugary beers for dessert, and lagers for pre-game; we’re looking for richness and earthy flavors. If you’ll be doing traditional dishes like candied yams, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes & gravy, I would pick a strong Belgian ale; they are rich in flavors, but are drier than most other strong beers. Because you’ll be filling your plate multiple times with everything in sight, don’t worry– just start light and go dark. If you are among the few capable of restraint in the plating department, you will likely enjoy the progression of flavors more. A Belgian-style pale or saison with salad and veggies; a dubbel or brown (like Nostradamus), with richer earthy-spice flavors and a sweeter aroma will be complemented by buttery mashed potatoes and your bird. If you want to break some pinot fans out of their box, pop a bottle of Flanders Red, like Rodenbach Grand Cru; its rich oak, dark fruit, and hint of cocoa pair well, and won’t be subdued by the butter on your corn.

At this point, no doubt you’ve lost count of your trips to the buffet table, and all the food is absorbing the alcohol faster than it can get to your head. I recommend a short break for a sip of peppermint tea. Peppermint is a digestive aid vis-a-vis slightly irritating your stomach lining, causing it to work a bit harder. Licorice helps too– anything with that flavor, like fennel, is helpful after a big meal. You’ve probably had (or noticed) the little candy-covered bits at Indian restaurants. Those are fennel seeds, and help freshen your breath and soothe a stuffed stomach at the same time.

And now it’s time for dessert. Pumpkin, apple, blueberry pie… gingerbread and ice cream…

One of the best beer desserts I ever had was Uinta’s Labyrinth Black Ale (a 13% doozy) with a well-prepared glass of absinthe alongside. If your guests are sticking around / have a designated driver, I’d recommend a hearty conversation along with those two (not for the faint-of-heart!). But you might want something a little more… normal. Barrel aged beers make excellent dessert pairings (or just desserts), as do Belgian quadrupels, barleywines, imperial stouts, and Scotch strong ales– really anything with a good dose of sweetness will keep the pleasurable feeling of a rich, sweet, creamy dessert rolling right along. Breaking into the stash of old, strong beer is a great way to thank your friends and loved ones. Come on in and ask us for some recommendations, we’ve got plenty!

A bit of history: the early European settlers definitely brewed beer in their first years here; some of it may have been made from maple or birch sap and flavored with herbs until they began importing malt from England; the Native Americans definitely made birch and maple beers. No doubt these were primitive by our standards, but there are extensive records that brewers knew the effects of the various wild-harvested herbs they used; most have medicinal value, some enhance the effects of alcohol (yarrow, for example, is a famous “intoxicant”), increase mirth (St. John’s Wort), or prevent scurvy (nettle, spruce). This brings back a whole new meaning to “seasonal beer!”

Isn’t beer fun?

Anatomy of a Beer Dinner, part 2

The next beer dinner at the Stein on Nov. 26 is going to be a little different, both in presentation and attitude. Owners Chip and Kristina came up with the idea of a “Civil War Beer Dinner,” in which two breweries — Hop Valley of Eugene and Flat Tail of Corvallis — plumb their stable of beers to bring the best pairing for a predetermined menu. This is the opposite of what we’ve done for the last three, and places the challenge to pair well on the brewers’ shoulders rather than our kitchen (not that they can’t rise to a challenge– preparing all the awesome food for these dinners during normal service is no small task!).

The brewers met up here a couple weeks ago, were presented with samples of the food for the dinner, and deliberated among themselves about what to bring. Watching their process (and participating in my head) was intriguing and pretty funny. Here are some quotes, which I can’t attribute because that might give away one of the pairings:

“I want something with solid bitterness to cut that heat and sweetness, but with malt backbone to make it flavorful.”

“Oh boy!”

“We may have to make a rocky mountain oyster stout for this one . . . wrap a firkin in bacon.”

“This screams Brett B.”

Here is the menu, which is tasty on its own (who doesn’t like fancified tailgate snacks?), but will undoubtedly experience added value when paired with beer:

1st Quarter: Stuffed Mushrooms with Parmesan,
Cream Cheese, Garlic, Walnuts

2nd Quarter: Salmon Cakes with Lemon Buttercream and Asparagus

3rd Quarter: Pork Ribs with house BBQ sauce, Pork & Beans

4th Quarter: Flank Steak Sliders on a Challah roll
with Fontina, Arugula, and Garlic-Roasted Tomatoes, Cracked Pepper & Lemon Aioli, Pepper & Red Cabbage Slaw

Overtime: White & Dark Chocolate Brownie
topped with Bacon Ice Cream

We’ll have tickets available early next week– check our Facebook page!

Anatomy of a Beer Dinner

beer pig

On September 10, The Bier Stein hosted its third beer pairing dinner with Oakshire Brewing, five courses and six beers. It was a great time, well organized, and overall quite tasty. I figured it was about time to talk about beer and food pairings, perhaps to de- and re-mythologize (or elitify, if you will) the process, execution, and enjoyment of this experience, both here and at home.

Pairing beer and food as a conscious ritual has not been around for very long. I have been drinking and brewing beer for nigh on a decade, and it wasn’t until two years ago that I heard about this method of gustatory enhancement; I attended two sessions of pairing at Oakshire, one with beer and chocolate, one with beer and charcuterie. (Overall, a wider variety of beers pair better with cured meats than with chocolate, in my experience.) I had first experienced this sort of synergetic joy with wine– a German Riesling worked wonders with the combination of spices, dried apricots, and splash of balsamic in an Ethiopian lentil stew.

Nowadays, many beer connoisseurs are on the hunt for the next thing; the rare, fleeting beers that get stowed away (perhaps forever) and shown to friends like a trophy, and shared if you’re really lucky. Trust me, this happens. New flavors are exciting (until they’re not). Probably the best way to create new flavors also happens to be the best way to interact with your friends and family: food! There are myriad blogs, charts, articles, and guides that suggest viable, tried and true pairings, either by beer style or food type. My favorite way is to pick one or the other, pick apart flavors and sensations, and figure out what I want out of its partner. This is a great way to get to know your palate and grow your knowledge. Sounds like a lot of pressure and work, eh?

grilled Pacific prawns with chili/lime glaze, Oakshire Watershed IPA
grilled Pacific prawns with chili/lime glaze, Oakshire Watershed IPA

The dish above is a great example of an easy pairing. “Heat and hops,” are a favorite pairing of Dave Stockhausen, the beer buyer here. It’s his go-to at home because it can be quick, easy, and cheap. In this case, from our beer dinner, “the citrus notes from the marinated shrimp went perfectly with the IPA.” Often times, IPAs can be overwhelming with bitterness and huge flavors; drinking it alongside a dish with equally intense flavors actually makes the IPA seem lighter and more refreshing, but no less flavorful. Another opportunity to make a great pair is dessert. Dark beer and chocolate is often the first pairing for most people; it’s like “Smoke on the Water” for beginner guitarists, something everybody has to go through to get to the next level.

If you’re an experimental home cook, you might want to incorporate beer into your food beyond “Beer Can Chicken.” Dessert is also a great place to start, and there are no shortage of stout cupcake recipes out there. Then you’re pretty much sure to have a great pairing with whatever beer you put into the food.

As we at The Bier Stein have started doing bi-monthly pairing dinners, we’ve encountered many challenges (remember collaboration and timing?), successes, and a couple falters. I asked several coworkers for some feedback on their experiences “behind-the-scenes.”

Our process starts with a meeting with chefs Richie and Andrew, Dave the buyer, owners Chip and Kristina, the brewer(s), and myself (as interloper and brainstormer). We discuss the brewer’s upcoming beer and ask them for some tasting notes; if we’re lucky, we get to taste beer on the spot. Since we’re starting with the beer, the challenge is to design food to match. We think about both complementary and contrasting flavors, depending on how we want to approach the pairing, and how it fits into the menu as a whole. I’m a fresh-and-local junkie and a gardener, so I try to think about what’s going to be in season and how it can be used. I also draw on my memories of specific ingredients or dishes. The brewers are great at this brainstorming process, and it can become a really long conversation that leaves mouths thirsty and watering at the same time.

Chef Andrew makes clean slices of cheesecake with a clean, cold knife
Chef Andrew makes clean slices of pumpkin cheesecake with a clean, cold knife.

“My favorite part is the challenge,” says chef Andrew, who has executed the desserts (among other dishes) for all three dinners. He had never heard of “Beeramisu” before the Pelican Brewery rep suggested it, but his final product bordered on the divine. For Richie, the kitchen manager, the challenge is complex. “Our customers are knowledgeable, so it’s different than just cooking dinner; they’re looking at all aspects, so I have to think  a couple steps ahead.” At the same time, he gets some relief from the fact that “people are happy with the beer to begin with.”

During the dinners, we are lucky to have brewers on hand to explain their beer and illustrate the way in which it interacts with its paired dish. This is added value, as you get an insider’s look to the way a brewer approaches his/her ingredients and brewing process, and how a specific hop, for example, tastes in a beer and with food.

Putting together the beer dinners is a team effort. As leader of the team, Chip, one of the owners, is always on, even when sitting to eat. He makes sure the kitchen is ready with tested recipes, and heads up meetings both before and after the dinners to discuss any issues and to affirm successes. He pays close attention to timing; dinner guests should never be kept waiting, nor should courses be served too soon.

Our expert staff keeps the flow smooth.
Our expert staff keeps the flow smooth.

Beer pairings come in many forms, and some can be quite surprising; imagine Firestone Walker’s Pale 31 and some dark chocolate with ginger. The smooth, cereal malt character and light orange and spice hop notes are accented by the ginger, while the chocolate fills out the light body and turns malty Total into Coco Puffs. Crazy.

You should consider the “mouthfeel” when looking to pair. Often, contrast works best, especially with cheese. You probably wouldn’t want to pair a thick, sweet ale with Brie, as the fatty cheese and high residual sugar could fill your mouth and be overwhelming. Rather, try a drier, more tart beer that will cut through some of the fat, but keep the luscious buttery flavor of the cheese– Biere de Garde (like La Choulette Ambree) comes to mind because it is dry and somewhat fruity, but has enough malt character that you might not even need a cracker under your cheese.

Stay tuned for more of this discussion– clearly (as I’ve gone far too long here) there’s a lot to talk about.

The menu from our dinner with Oakshire Brewing.
The menu from our dinner with Oakshire Brewing.