Tag Archives: beer pairing

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


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.