I have always been a firm believer in the power of beer and food together. Although it isn’t something I write about often, the warm fuzzies that a perfect pairing can create are not to be undervalued.
I was privileged to participate in a fantastic beer dinner recently with members of my brewing club. I consider myself fortunate to be surrounded by excellent home cooks who are also passionate drinkers. We ate some amazing food and learned some important things about beer pairing!
The arrangement was to work in pairs and present one dish with a beer pairing. We ended up with four pairs of people, and my partner and I chose dessert.
The first course was a bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and baguette with a balsamic drizzle. It was a classic and fresh combination that would have been easy to overwhelm, but when paired with Third Street’s Rise to the Top, nothing was lost.
The small amount of wheat in the beer was underscored by the perfectly crackly bread and the sweet-peppery balsamic sang out in contrast to the mild malt of the cream ale.
The second grouping was traditional corn tamales with two different Oktoberfests – Spaten and Point.
Marzen beers are not often enjoyed beyond the late summer/early fall, but they are known to pair beautifully with tomatoes, spice, and chicken, which were all in this dish!
The Oktoberfests were very different, and although I enjoy the Point version, the Spaten had much more character and delivered more of the elements that made an excellent pair. The bready malt and sweetness just shy of caramel stood up to the salsa and cut through the corn. It was magnificent, and definitely something I would have never tried.
When it comes to beer pairing, anything goes. Notice I didn’t say “anything works”. What I mean is that there are no rules, experimentation is key, and personal preference will always play a role. Of course there will always be pairings that taste terrible – think orange juice and toothpaste – but chances are, with some practice, you’ll find some amazing opportunities to bring out the best elements of the food and the beer.
Many guidelines exist out there to help home cooks and professional chefs choose beer pairings. From simple to extensive, you can get as scientific as you want. The list from the Brewer’s Association seems to be the definitive guide on the subject.
Next on the menu was a refreshing and effective palate cleanser – Izzy’s lemon sorbet with Marten’s Witte. This was a magical palate experience. The soft wheat notes of the beer, the effervescence, the slight citrus – these were all echoed in the sorbet. Pairing a tart food can be risky, but the sorbet did not grow more sour next to this beer, or vice versa.
One of the more classic pairs was beef short ribs and Founder’s Porter, served with root vegetables and a quinoa risotto. The short ribs were cooked in the porter and the root vegetables were roasted to perfection.
Porter is capable of being paired with more foods than you might think. Obvious pairings include grilled meats, burgers, pork, and roasted vegetables. Ribs, shepherd’s pie, and even robust seafoods such as scallops also work well. Chocolate desserts make a great pair, too.
Additionally, because this was an American porter with more bitterness than British versions, the hops cut some of the fattiness of the short ribs.
The final course was prepared by me and my friend Lisa. Because we both love to cook but were working on opposite schedules, we created a dessert duo, served in Ball jars and paired with Widmer Brothers Kill Devil ’13. My recipe was vanilla bean panna cotta and Lisa’s was a pumpkin cream pie with dulce de leche sauce.
Widmer Brothers’ Reserve Kill Devil ’13 is a brown ale made with ingredients traditionally used in rum and aged in rum barrels. The blackstrap molasses and palm sugar grant some toffee notes, spice, and licorice. It was the first time I had actually tried this beer and I was very, very pleased.
Here is why I chose this beer and why it was a huge hit – the beer acted in contrast to the restrained and creamy panna cotta, adding elements of spice to the otherwise plain vanilla. But it acted in tandem with the pumpkin, caramel, and graham cracker crust in something called a flavor echo.
Molasses and pumpkin is a powerful combination. Molasses is the secret (shhhh) ingredient in the pumpkin pie recipe that I make at Thanksgiving time, another reason why I knew the Kill Devil would be wonderful.
I was somewhat more hesitant with the panna cotta, worried that it may be overwhelmed, but I had forgotten how delectably creamy and not-so-sweet this dessert is. The texture was what allowed it to stand up to the spicy sweetness of the beer.
I was very proud of how well the group was able to present not just tolerable but remarkable pairings. Add to that the high-caliber cooking ability and presentation, and these courses could have been served at a restaurant. Thanks to everyone for their thoughtful dishes and intentional pairings!
Sources: Brewers Association, Garret Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table