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Point of Brew: Pairing beers with food

By From page A9 | November 10, 2011

Many years ago, my dear traveling companion and I went to the Benbow Inn in Garberville for Thanksgiving. It was just one of those get-out-of-town opportunities when all members of our family had other fish to fry and other places to be at Thanksgiving and we were not particularly wanted at home or any other place, for that matter. So Benbow Inn it was. Or it might have been the Heritage Inn; I’m not big on details.

When we sat down for our Thanksgiving dinner, I ordered a beer to go with the meal. This set the cat among the pigeons as the sommelier was ill-prepared for such a request, and indeed seemed somewhat offended by it.

You can imagine a series of questions, about my request, running through the sommelier’s mind, along these lines: Why would this strange man ruin the chef’s creations by drinking beer alongside them? Why would he compromise his own appreciation and enjoyment of a fine meal by drinking beer with it? Why would he draw attention to himself and his elegant companion in such place as this fine dining room, a place of sophistication and distinction, by drinking beer in it?

I think he was doubly outraged when I said I would drink my beer from the large wine glasses provided on the table; I thought about asking for an ice bucket but thought better of it.

This was the ancient era in history when only wine was considered fit for consumption at the dinner table especially in places like the Benbow Inn (or maybe Heritage Inn) and especially at celebratory times such as Thanksgiving dinner. Fortunately, that time has long gone and, these days, pairing of foods with beers has become a very smart part of the gourmand’s experience.

I guess there are two main reasons: First, these days, there is a huge variety of beers in the marketplace such that it is hardly possible to imagine a beer that does not exist; and so the spectrum of flavors for contrasting or matching with foods is legion, and, incidentally, far exceeds the variety of flavors and characters in wines.

Second, chefs and gourmands and opinion makers and journalists and brewers themselves have been so active in exploring beer and food pairings that one can hardly turn around but find another opportunity to experience beer matched with food.

I guess the first time I had a chance to do this — to experience a deliberate effort by a chef to make food to pair with specific beers — was at a dinner many years ago at a Craft Brewers Conference in Boston; it was organized by the legendary (and now dead) beer author Michael Jackson. Since I knew the beers Michael would choose would be intensely flavored and low in volume, I took along a 12-pack of Budweiser as a palate cleanser and made myself the most popular guy in the room.

Much more recently, I enjoyed a fascinating evening in the cellar of the Thirsty Bear brewpub in San Francisco, celebrating the 10th anniversary of that business (owned by a former student) where the beers and foods were specifically designed for the perfect beer-food marriage. Incidentally, it is not so much the marriage that is important as the child the marriage delivers.

Each year, we end the first eight-week session of my Master Brewers Program with a beer and food tasting put on by Susan Langstaff (a former student and sensory science expert) in which the class of 40 or so students cross-tastes about a dozen beers with a dozen food samples to try to detect which kinds of flavor mixtures work well and which do not.

Putting that event on is an organizational nightmare that Susan handles with aplomb. But for many in the class, it is the first time they have deliberately experienced this aspect of beer drinking; for most students, most of the time the beer is chosen independent of the food being eaten and so any synergy is accidental.

Though there are no hard and fast rules for pairing beers with foods and each person has individual likes and dislikes, there are some rough guide lines that seem to work. Some experts recommend “cut,” “complement” and “contrast.”

At www.Beertravellers.com you will find the following recommendations: Some beers such as light ales and hoppy lagers can cut a buttery or fatty dish or one that is spicy and hot; they are thirst-quenchers. Anything rich and chocolate-flavored complements lambic fruit beers or is a perfect complement with stouts; and, as a contrast, stouts bring out the best in oysters, for instance.

Hoppy pale ales contrast well with smoky flavors and barbecued dishes but complement seafood and spicy cuisine, and most beers complement most cheeses as long as there is some reasonable match of flavor strength.

Generally speaking, most successful beer-food pairings match like with like. That is, lighter foods tend to go best with lighter beers. Really heavy bitter and black and alcoholic beers can overwhelm any but the most robust dishes, but there is no doubt that saltiness or sweetness or acidity of foods cry out for matching or contrasting characters available in beers.

The experts also advise to think ethnic: For example, German dark lagers with sausages, English ales with steak and kidney pie (my mouth waters at the thought) or a hoppy American beer with steamed New England clams.

As the eating season approaches, may I suggest you give some thought to the potential of beer to enhance the food on your holiday table, to amaze your friends with your exquisite gourmet taste and bravery and to put you on the cutting edge of foodie fashion.

— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Michael Lewis

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