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Beer and Food Pairing

Beer Snobbery Laid Bare

Things have progressed since the Middle Ages, when beer was safer to drink than the untreated water. In those days, the prospect of being afflicted by waterborne disease was a compelling enough reason to drink beer with food. Drawing on the traditions of older beer cultures and the culinary frontier of the United States today, there are many possibilities to explore. An increasing number of good brewpubs with attached restaurants feature imaginative beer and food programs.

Serious beer and food pondering would merit a book, but the much simplified rules of thumb are easy to grasp. Sweetish paler meats such as pork or chicken often work best with beers displaying a malt accent, typically a malty lager. Red meats such as game, lamb, or beef have greater affinity with richer, fruity ales. Spicy foods are best foiled by lagers, but this is too simple. Thai cuisine, being piquant and delicate, works best with a clean, delicate lager like the Thai brand, Singha. Robust Mexican spicing invites the accompaniment of one of that country’s fine, mildly sweet, Vienna-style beers such as Negra Modelo. Barbecued meats, dear to the heart of so many Americans, find a natural kinship with drier, smoky examples of American craft-brewed stouts and porters. Of course most of this advice applies equally well when actually cooking with the same beer that you propose to drink with the meal, though this is a more complicated matter.

Cooking with beer

The art of cooking with beer is dificult to address in a few short sentences. The essential principles are, as with all culinary principles, quite simple. The flavor profile of beer boils down to a balance of sweetness and dryness (a factor of malt character and residual sugars) balanced by the bitterness of hops. Beer can contribute richness-even sweetness and body-to sauces. Beware of the hops. They will change in nature in the cooking process, particularly when reducing sauces, and take on a bitter character that will dominate. One has to be sparing when cooking with American pale ales and particularly IPAs. When hoppy beers are reduced they become much more bitter. Doppelbocks, English brown ales, Belgian ales, and Scottish ales are all good culinary additions due to their lower hop bitterness and richer malt accents, when brewed in the classic styles.

Classic beer pairings

Many people may have heard of classic wine pairings with food. Certain beers also have recognized pairings with foods.

Irish stout and oysters. Irish-style dry stouts are every bit the equal to any white wine when paired with oysters. Note that good draft Guinness, or an equivalent (i.e., nitrogen-flushed to give a creamy smooth head), will work better than some stronger, more acrid and much hoppier U.S. craft-brewed stouts. Oatmeal stouts with restrained hop bitterness will also work very well. The burnt barley flavors, and particularly, the smooth texture, offset the indescribable sensation of saline, slithery bi-valves. Another coupling with oysters that is greater than the sum of its parts, for very different reasons, is hoppy American pale ale. The residual iodine and brine of the oysters work well with the citrusy hop flavors of the beer.

Ploughman’s lunch with bitter. The English are famously uncelebrated for their cuisine. Nonetheless, beer and cheese is a well-understood pairing in Britain that is traditionally indulged at lunchtime with the ploughman’s (or plowman’s) lunch. A plate of strong English cheese, such as farmhouse Cheddar or even Stilton, accompanied by pickles, relishes, and bread is available at most pubs. These cheeses, so difficult to pair with wine, work effortlessly with stronger fruity English-style ales. The earthy, toasted malt flavors and balanced hop accents of English and English-style ales have an affinity with sharp cheeses, and cope well with the salty, sharp nature of Stilton. When concluding a meal with Stilton, try a strong English-style ale or even a barley wine, instead of port and walnuts.

Bratwurst with German fest-märzen beers. The Germans have refined the art of pork and lager pairing by means of the sausage. Beer-soaked brats and fest beers probably need no introduction to readers who have had some contact with Octoberfests staged by local breweries. The general principle is that sweeter, toasty malt flavors with relatively subtle hopping (i.e., bitterness) pair well with rich though not strongly flavored pork. The brats, of course, will have been soaked in beer prior to cooking. Vienna-style lagers also work well in this situation. A hoppy pale ale, though not a culinary crime, would tend to overwhelm the pork flavors. For pale ale drinkers who desire phallic pieces of meat, the "kilbasa" or Polish Sausage is a better bet, with all the trimmings, naturally. Taking this to its basest level, the celebrated former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka has been quoted as saying that "a seven-course meal for a Grabowski (Chicago parlance for a blue-collar Pole) is a hot dog and a six pack." He must have been referring to an American pale lager, surely the ideal match for a hot dog.

Mussels with Belgian gueuze. This is an esoteric pairing of the tart lambic beers of the Brussels area and the national staple of Belgium, moules (mussels). If you have not tasted a lambic, specifically a gueuze, you will have no idea how beer and shellfish could possibly work in a classic manner. Gueuze is unlike conventional beer. It is tart, dry, and very acidic in the same manner that wine is. In culinary terms it can be interchangeable with acidic white wine, to the point that you can even steam the mussels in gueuze rather than white wine. Surprisingly, the Bruxelloise do not do this as often as they ought to. Given the availability of imported gueuze in major U.S. markets, this is one of the more delightful, easy, and sophisticated pairings that any beer connoisseur should be able to pull off.

Beer and chocolate. From time to time wine and food writers love to speculate about what, if anything, to serve with dark chocolate. The answer is...beer, of course. There are a number of possibilities but here we have to get brand specific. A first choice would be a barley wine or strong bottle-conditioned ale with some aged, mature character. The classic example from England is Thomas Hardy’s from Eldridge Pope. Other possibilities are McEwan’s Export Scotch Ale, Young’s Old Nick Barley Wine, or even Samuel Smith’s Imperial Russian Stout. The basic principle is to match the bittersweet flavors of dark chocolate with sweet but dark-roasted malt flavors of specific beers.

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