With beer, there’s less need for an exhaustive taste memory and fewer rules (or exceptions to them). When I really want my trendy new Stuffed Pigs Trotter, Organic Carrot-Ginger Soup or Mini Huckleberry Rice Pudding Soufflé to shine, I want its beverage companion to be low-risk and to highlight rather than downplay my dish. While beer and food pairing may require a little less thought and less superiority of attitude, it certainly has become much more sophisticated. As beer writer Ben Mcfarland puts it, “Grain is giving the grape a run for its money.”
My love affair with the food-brew continuum began 20-plus years ago when I opened my dream beer-centric restaurant in a small lakeside New Hampshire village. While our food was a cross between cutting edge and classic pub fare, beer played an intimate role. In the ‘80s that was a novelty; now it’s called a gastropub. The advent of the American gastropub reveals a new respect for combining artisan cookery and craft beer.
The traditional pairings are universal; ale and brats, stout and stew, witbier and mussels and even the new classics such as pale ales and curries and stout and oysters have become ubiquitous. And if I hear about IPA and carrot cake again, well…Let’s just say that newly inspired cuisine may require newly inspired beer pairings. Although there are very few foods that cannot find their beer match, I set out to pair some of the most prevalent, chef-driven foods with beer, using a few basic principles (see sidebar).
Tapas & Small Plates
Little tastes served in slow succession are an appealing way to show off the talents and ingredients on any menu. Colorful tapas, mixed antipasto and meze-style Mediterranean morsels inspire trial. It is no surprise then, that cold and hot small plates—from a bowl of olives to mini versions of entrees—are America’s new dining paradigm.
The relatively low commitment of diminutively sized dishes offers an operator a chance to preview their beverage wares, and deliberate “small bite flights” are becoming avant-garde.
Both Americanized and traditional Spanish tapas are all the rage in Spanish venues as well as mainstream restaurants. In Spain, there are specialized, beer-focused tapas bars called Cervecaria, but thankfully, most all tapas are terrific with beer. When in doubt or with a large variety of dishes served at once, I generally recommend a saison, weissbier, witbier or pils, but here are some other pairing options:
• Briny olives with weissbier or spicy pale ale
• Tomato garlic bread, roasted peppers and bean
salads with blonde ale or kölsch
• Serrano ham or dry-cured meats with orval,
Oktoberfest, dry stout or porter
• Seafood in olive oil or sauce with pilsner or weissbier
• Fried calamari, seafood or vegetables with
kölsch or amber ale
• Chorizo, sausages or anchovies and tomatoes or
peppers with IPA, ESB, bock, red or strong ale
• Crema Catalana, custard or flan with framboise,
kriek, imperial stout or porter
Green and Seasonal Cuisine
From local and eco eating to sustainable, slow and seasonal sourcing, a new food consciousness is igniting. Whether we consider it necessary or simply fashionable, sustainability is both top of mind and top of menu for the food- and business-savvy operator.
As it happens, regional brewers were among the pioneers of green, eco, slow and sustainable products. Finding local, regional and international brewers whose principals and practices are in tune with both the flavors and fundamentals of sustainable cuisine is now relatively effortless. Seasonality is a natural place to start, especially since special release beers are often made to marry well with their seasonal gastronomic equals.
At Chicago’s green and seasonal sanctuary Hot Chocolate, chef-owner Mindy Segal is not only hyper-sustainable but also the self-proclaimed queen of food and beer pairing. Segal, her chefs and beverage manager Luke Lefiles visit regional farms, green markets and producers to find products that fit the restaurant’s mission of high flavor and low impact. Of the beer, Lefiles comments, “The beers are designed to reflect our menus’ seasonal rotation, which makes this process a no brainier. Given the focus of our kitchen, it is impossible for me to ignore [beverage] seasonality.”
Chef Segal’s personal favorite autumn pairing is a cheddar melt of six-year aged Wisconsin cheddar, house-made pumpernickel with a brush of local honey syrup, which she mates with the autumnal apple blossom characteristics of Unibroue’s Apple-Éphémère. The Belgian blanche, or white ale, brewed on the lees with spring barley, wheat, apple wort and coriander compliments, coalesces and cuts the fat and age of the cheese, the spice of the bread and the sweet of the honey. Hard cider or a cider shandy work, as well.
When last year’s Oxford Dictionary word of the year turned out to be “localvore,” the local food movement became undeniable, sending chefs and restaurateurs searching for regional food products. Fortunately, many resolute and even recreational localvores (and those who plan menus for them) have been liberated by local craft brewers.
At Wisconsin’s taste of the terrior Mecca, The Washington Hotel, Restaurant & Culinary School in Washington Island, Wis., the near-manic commitment to Door County Peninsula products makes for very memorable meals. Chef/proprietor Leah Caplan and her staff embrace indigenous products and construct the fine dining, bakery, brick oven and culinary school menus celebrating the freshest ingredients grown, raised and fished near or on their island locale. Many menu items are composed with Washington Island’s own wheat, which is also the inspiration for Death’s Door Spirits and Island Wheat Ale brewed by Capital Brewing in nearby Middleton. Regionally brewed beers as well as wines are paired with the Washington Hotel’s cuisine. Caplan describes the beer pairing as “idiot’s work” since most beers “cut through heat and fat and compliment sweet while still offering complexity and that all-important taste of place.”
Every menu item includes an island product, from produce to beef to the island’s wheat. So committed is Caplan to provenance that she employs the island wheat in the crust for her famous Sconnie Pizza, which boasts nearby Willow Creek brats, local cabbage sauerkraut, mustard cream, local veggie salad and is paired with Island Wheat Ale, further proving my favorite mantra: What grows together often really does go together.
Weigh the Options
Delicate foods are generally more successful with lighter beers; robust dishes demand fuller, more intense beers. Seasonal weight is also a consideration.
Complement More Than Contrast
Unlike wine pairing, which is often about contrasting elements, food is typically flattered by the complementary aromatics, textures and flavors in craft beers.
Beer is a food, so remember basic interactive culinary principals when pairing: sweet, sour, spice, salt, bitter, fattiness, heat and cold interact with each other and with the level of alcohol, bitter, sweet, malt and roasted elements in beer.
Bubbles are Your Best Friend
Remember that carbonation usually acts as a palate cleanser, lightener and fat clearer, preparing the palate for the next bite or the next dish, making beer a most flexible companion. A mild-flavored ale is often a better blind choice than most other beverages if you cannot decide.
When In Doubt, Consider Classic Combinations
and Pairings with Provenance.
There is a reason pretzels work with German pilsner just like brats with Vienna lager, lamb with Scottish ale, oysters or smoked salmon with English and Irish stout, sushi with Japanese lager, Thai food with Tiger Beer and that Belgian chocolate seems delicious with Belgian ale.
There Are Only Two True Rules: Balance and Taste
Forget everything above. As with cooking, concocting cocktails or pairing wine, there are simply no hard and fast rules other than tasting and balancing. Taste, taste, taste and taste again. Experiment with balancing flavor and the influence of weight, contrast and harmony and then, yes, taste again. Fortunately, beer is a relatively minor commitment, so research away!
Each year, specialty American cheese seems to rise higher on the list of chef’s favorite things both to plate in spare but complex glory and as dish-defining ingredients. The truth is also out: Beer and its bubbles is the best compliment to most artisan cheeses, probably because they have so much history together as farmhouse products. The clean carbonation and crisp hops of a middle intensity beer typically enhances the richness of most cheese, but the strength and weight of the cheese generally calls for the same body in a beer. And while I say let the tasting begin, some outstanding mold and yeast alliances have been established.
Jeffery Roberts, co-founder of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, slow food activist and author of Atlas of American Artisan Cheese (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007), works with chefs and food professionals to create great all-American artisan cheeses and regional brew pairings. Two of his recommendations: Bittersweet Plantation Feliciana Nevat from Gonzales, La., which is made with pasteurized cow and goats’ milk, and aged three to four weeks and features a soft-ripened, bloomy rind on the dome-shaped wheel, with Abita Fall Fest from Abita Springs, La.; and Haystack Mountain Red Cloud Goat Cheese from Longmont Colo., which is made with raw goats’ milk and aged two months, and sports a red washed rind and smooth, complex and robust disk, with Fort Collins, Colo.-based New Belgium Brewery’s Fat Tire Amber Ale.
Crazy times (and these are indeed crazy times) call for consolation, cheer and something just a little new and different. While so-called comfort food has become cliché and frequently dull, great chefs are innovating worthy classics just enough to both console and appeal. The cheer comes from to the joy of pairing creative classics with craft beers.
David Burke, the monarch of inventive comfort food, or as he calls it, “Modern American Cuisine,” has been working with The Boston Beer Company to team updated classics and Samuel Adams brews for hotel chains Hilton and Marriott in programs called, respectively, “Brews and Bites” and “Burke and Beer.” Burke puts his ingenious spin on time-honored dishes such as Cheese “Burker” Sliders, which is paired with Samuel Adams Boston Lager for an all-American duo. The brew also has just enough heft to work with the sweetly spiced BBQ Chicken & Jack Cheese Dumplings, while the “Secret” Mini Meatloaf is recommended with the robust Samuel Adams Black Lager.
Meatloaf is also a special at The Washington Hotel, where Caplan makes it Midwestern style but with local beef and beer gravy and serves it opposite the equally hearty New Glarus Uff-da Bock. And the new-old fashioned really comes to life when she puts an island wheat-crusted local cherry pie together with a traditional Belgian cherry lambic, New Glarus Belgian Red. The brew earned a spot in the Slow Food Ark of Taste probably because each bottle contains a pound of Door County cherries!
For two consecutive years, the American Culinary Federation’s membership of 1,200 chefs has rated miniature desserts among the top hot trends. Whether pint-size describes a flight of petite sweets, a study of one ingredient or a big, traditionally motivated creation, beer makes a prime pairing. Refreshing, cleansing carbonation aside, a lot of harmonizing and a little contrasting makes for a surprising connection between the sweet and the wheat (and the barley, hops….).
Pastry maven Segal at Hot Chocolate always has a set of chocolate desserts and beers on her menu. A Study in Chocolate Cake, for example, is a chocolate buttermilk and bittersweet chocolate mousse layer cake with a Valrhona chocolate ice cream “cup cake”—chocolate frosting, honey comb and fresh honey cream poured in the bowl tableside from a petite cocktail shaker. With this chocolate lover’s cornucopia, Lefiles pairs DarkLord, a Russian imperial stout brewed with coffee, molasses and honey at Munster, Ind.-based Three Floyds Brewing. When he is unable to get that underground “beer freak favorite”—it’s only available one day a year—he goes for Old Rasputin from North Coast Brewery; he says the Russian imperial is built for toffee, dark chocolates, roasted nuts and caramel. Like darker Belgian style ales with milk chocolate, Russian imperial and dark chocolate is a match made in chocoholic heaven.
Washington Hotel’s Caplan likes an oatmeal stout or stronger roasted stout with her gingery, nutty and autumn harvest selections, but for fruit or chocolate she generally tends toward fruity lambics for both convergence and contrast. Likewise, Segal creates many of Hot Chocolate’s dessert “tastings” with local fruit. She and Lefiles recommend dry, tart fruit beers such as raspberry French-Belgian farmhouse ale La Choulette Framboise, which this summer was adored alongside a Michigan peach and local raspberry mousse affair served with rich salted shortbread. Lighter Flemish krieks or pale triple ales flatter more gentle fruit options. Heavier, creamy sweets with or without fruit find seemingly strange bedfellows with hoppy IPAs, which sever but do not break through the desirable sweetness and heft of dense cake-,
caramel-, cream- or cheese-based desserts. l
Robin Schempp is founder and president of Right Stuff Enterprises, through which she consults on culinary concept, product, menu and business development. She is vice president of the Chefs Collaborative and active in numerous culinary organizations.