The perfect pairing: craft beer
By Kevin Gray
Most people think wine when they think of food pairings, but diners with sophisticated palates increasingly gravitate towards beer with their cuisine. Craft beer, with its nearly infinite combinations of aroma and flavor, offers diners a world of new taste discoveries.
In truth, beer and food have always co-mingled, especially in European cultures like England, Germany and Belgium. At points, beer was food. According to lore, European monks brewed ales and bock beers to provide sustenance during their Lenten fasts. The monks paired their flavorful “liquid breads” with leek soups to ensure they received much needed nourishment. However, during the post-Prohibition dark ages of American brewing, beer lost its seat at the table. The fizzy yellow drink was banished from the feast, allowed only to mingle with pizza, nachos and the occasional hot dog or hamburger.
About two decades ago, craft brewers began to restore beer to its proper place. Today, walk into any well-stocked carry-out and you can choose from citrusy IPAs to coffee-intoned stouts, roasty porters to sour lambics, or malty bocks to bitter pale ales, with infinite possibilities along the spectrums in between. And this tapestry of flavors demands to be paired with interesting and engaging dishes.
Why does beer-pairing work? Like wine, beer can contrast the flavors in a dish — a raspberry lambic is the perfect counterpoint to a rich chocolate cake, while a roasty porter accents an acidic, peppery tomato sauce. But unlike wine, beer can also perfectly complement a flavor profile, especially when it comes to charred meats and more exotic, spice-infused dishes. A burger, caramelized by the grill, picks up the rich caramel malts used in an amber ale, while a hop-centric West Coast IPA, with its citrusy spice notes, highlights the lime and cilantro of Thai and Mexican dishes. It is beer’s great diversity that allows it to tread in areas where wine often cannot.
Pairing a beer with a dish is relatively simple. First, consider the weight of the food. Delicate dishes go with lighter beers, while robust meals require a weighty partner. A smoky scotch ale clobbers delicate seafood dishes or summer salads, but accentuates a thick juicy burger slathered in mustard and barbecue sauce. For lighter fare, pick a crisp pilsner, a funky saison or a bright wheat beer.
Next, pick out the dominant flavors in the dish. Garrett Oliver, who literally wrote the book on beer and food pairings when he published “The Brewmaster’s Table,” breaks flavors into two categories: bright and dark. Bright flavors are reminiscent of warm spring afternoons and tropical summer evenings — cilantro, ginger, lime, mango, chili peppers and floral herbs. Dark flavors conjure sweater weather and fireside meals, and may include chocolate, coffee, cinnamon, olives and savory herbs. Think about the profile of the dish. If it tends toward the brighter side, look for hoppy beers or ones that emphasize spicy, exotic notes, like IPAs or Belgian white ales. If the food contains a lot of rich, darker flavors, reach for malt-forward beers like stouts, porters or bock beers, which tend towards the sweeter side and are often punctuated with roasty or smoky flavors.
Finally, consider the alcoholic strength and the carbonation levels of a beer. Beers high in alcohol cut through spicy oils like those found in Indian cuisine, while the higher than average carbonation of most Belgian ales help scrub the palate of fats, making them perfect for rich, hefty meals like Thanksgiving dinners.
The best part about beer pairing is that it is accessible to anyone. There are no wrong answers, so if your first attempt does not work, try another beer or beer style.
For a crash course in beer and food pairings, check out the Dayton AleFeast. Held at the Dayton Masonic Center this Saturday, March 6, this festival marks its third year of pairing haute cuisine with the best of the craft beer world. Founder Joe Waizmann notes that the event “marks an evolution of beer and food,” not only offering hand-selected pairings, but also highlighting many offerings that incorporate beer into the recipe.
The event includes more than 50 beers from approximately 30 breweries, including innovators such as Stone, Dogfish Head, Hoppin’ Frog, Founders and BrewDog. Organizers pair these diverse beers with high-end cheeses, intriguing salads, fine chocolates, and a range of entrees, including several prepared by local Culinary Arts Institute-trained chefs (see the full menu online at www.AleFest.com). Tickets for the event, which runs from 1 to 4 p.m., are $50 in advance (or $55 at the door) and can be purchased at a variety of local retailers or online.
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org