I’ll be honest, this post is a long time coming. Truthfully, I’ve had the most problem just STARTING the damn thing. Any writer knows that the kick-off point in a piece of writing is one of the worst and I’ve been stuck with that for a couple of weeks while also getting used to having some sort of a life outside of work and beer (video games, they’re going to be big). Over the course of being stuck I promised myself that under no circumstances will I just start this post with a “it’s been hard for me to start this” paragraph. And heeeeeere we freakin’ are.
Beer and food pairing. Let’s talk about this.
This is a subject that I really love learning more about and which I honestly am still at the beginning stages of understanding. While there is no single right way to look at this, I’ll try my best to explain how I see this and give a few examples.
To start out with some base knowledge, here’s a clip from Disney’s Ratatouille in which the main character Remy brings up the visualization of flavour.
If you can’t watch the clip at work or hate Disney for some twisted reason, the point of it is that there are an almost infinite number of flavour combinations out there, both simple and complex, that can make one unified flavour that is something completely different and amazing. Although the above clip was talking about food, I believe this thought crosses over to pairing as well. Take a selected beer and a selected dish and combine them to create an experience, something that combines the two elements to create one. And that’s pretty much how I see pairing.
From there you can go in to the trial and error stage, which can be fun but comes with the risk of just not working out in your meal (but hey, an excuse to order another beer is a good one). And while there are no rigid rules like wine (I remember the “red with red, white with white” rule being hit over my head when I was younger), there are some good tips people have found that you can choose to follow or ignore. Here’s a few that I’ve picked up from my own experiences or from the advice of others:
- A hoppy IPA can bring out the heat in a good, spicy curry and a crisp and cold pilsner can tone it down.
- A stout with heavy chocolate notes can pair well with vanilla ice cream, raspberries, or even trifle.
- A nice IPA can bring out spiced lamb in wonderful ways.
- Hard Cider and Pork. Yep. It works just as well as porkchops and applesauce.
- A pilsner can cut down on the greasiness of bacon while successfully keeping the smoked taste. A stout with heavy coffee notes can make a good breakfast.
- A light saison brings an added sweetness to seafood like lobster, scallops or shrimp.
And even then, it’s just personal opinion and taste. As the song goes, “what might be right for you, might not be right for some”. But pairing a food with beer is really a fun rabbit hole to go down due to the limitless possibilities of pairings. Cookies? Go forth and discover. Pizza? Whatever works. Braised Herbed Rabbit with Mustard Sauce? Best of luck. Sausage? WHAT KIND?
There are many ways to learn more on pairings and improve your palate. For books ‘Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink’ by Randy Mosher has a really great section on the subject. There is of course the above mentioned trial and error option, where you figure things out for yourself (I personally like trying to figure out the best beer to go with a burger while taking the condiments in to consideration). A handy tip is to be sure to read the description on the bottles of certain beers as the brewmaster may have some pairing suggestions that they feel best compliments their beer. And also, depending where you are, there are always classes and events going on, put on by a brewery, importer, restaurant or some combination of the three.
A recent examples of a pairing event: A while back I went to the first in a series of quarterly beer pairing dinners at Bier Markt here in Toronto (King St. West location). Operations Manager Daniel Schmidt and Chef Kris Tatemichi brought forth a total of six courses along with beers to accompany each one. Although that sounds intimidating as hell, the servings sizes weren’t monstrous and each pairing was allowed to have their moment. As each course was being served to us, Daniel would talk a little bit about the beer that was being paired with the dish and why it was selected and Chef Kris would talk about the dish. While there were some small problems to be associated with a first time event (The section for the dinner wasn’t separated from the local crowd who came in, making for a noisy night) and some of the pairings missed the mark for me personally, the good outweighed the bad with inspired pairings such as housemade apple and pork sausage paired with Poperings Hommelbier (a beer that on first taste almost resembles tree bark but combined with the sausage to create a smooth, earthy and delicious combination that I remember still), Picked Ontario Mushrooms and Schnieder Weisse Tap 7 (when combined made for a very creamy, rich dish) and Bier Beignets with pastry creme and Sinha reduction with Unibroue’s La Maudite Strong Amber-Red (which made for an elegant and creamy taste that wrapped up the event nicely). I left the night feeling like I had gotten an education and a few new base blocks of understanding in my own pairing explorations and experiments.
Although that was a good exception, I give you a warning about pairing events: They can be a little unbalanced at times, sometimes focusing more on the food or more on the beer depending on who is putting the event on. Too many times have I been to a pairing where the beer selection was an afterthought and it just fell short. By all means check them out, but be aware that it’s possible it may miss the mark for you.
In the end, the important thing is to have fun with it and go with what works for you. As long as you like it, there is no “wrong” pairing. Just keep on combining and figuring it out and you’ll be fine.