Serving food with beer is hardly a new phenomenon—even before brewpubs were born, beer was always present at feasts and celebrations. Newer to the scene, though, is the notion that beer can be expertly paired with food to create paradigm-shifting flavor combinations. Beer is quickly replacing wine as the paired beverage at the table, and craft brewers and chefs are ecstatic about it.
“Wine and cheese is like arm wrestling versus beer and cheese, which is like holding hands,” says Matthew Barbee, the owner and head brewer of Rockmill Brewery in Lancaster, Ohio. More broadly, brewers and chefs apply this analogy to all kinds of foods and not just cheese. Beer is more versatile when it comes to pairings, they say, and they’ve set out to prove it through beer-and-food pairing events that are trending across the country.
Each year at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver, Colorado, the Brewers Association hosts an event called Paired (formerly the Farm to Table Pavilion). It’s a Who’s Who of craft brewers and independent restaurateurs who offer guests mind-blowing small bite and beer pairings. (Pictured at top, Lone Tree Brewing Company (Lone Tree, Colorado) paired What The Dill Rye IPA with Ham Rillettes with Smoky Glace and Bubbly Cheese Puff from Rick Martin of Limestone (Lawrence, Kansas) at the 2015 GABF Paired event.)
There’s also SAVOR, basically a two-day version of Paired with added seminars, held in Washington, D.C. Then there’s Craft Beer + Food week in Seattle, BrüFrou in Denver, the Brooklyn Brewery’s The Mash tours, the annual TAP New York (New York State’s largest craft beer festival that showcases tasty morsels that carefully complement the brews) … the list goes on and on.
And then there are the ubiquitous beer dinners that are taking place everywhere, all the time. Pairing beer and food is happening in a big way.
One of the better-known pairing-focused events is the annual Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival that takes place at the Vail Cascade Resort in Vail, Colorado, during ski season (January 5–7, 2017). The sixteen-year-old festival includes multiple brewmasters’ dinners, tasting events, a homebrew competition, and a sought-after beer-and-food pairing seminar that sells out early every year. Big Beers is spearheaded by Laura Lodge, who now owns Customized Craft Beer Programs, which creates retail programs with food and beverage teams at resorts; educates resort staff; consults for breweries about distribution; and puts on specialty dinner pairing events and large-scale craft beer events.
Lodge found craft beer through the distribution tier. She helped her brother expand High Point Brewing Corp. distribution company on Colorado’s Western Slope, and after eight years of experience wrote the book Distribution Insight for the Craft Brewer. Laura is also the staff coordinator for Paired and various salons at SAVOR, the collaborative author of the Brewers Association’s Beer Server Training for Brewpubs manual, a Cicerone-Certified Beer Server, and a sour-beer lover.
Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® caught up with Lodge with beer and food pairing in mind. Here she spells out her tips for home chefs for creating remarkable beer and food pairings.
Begin with Beer
“I always start with the beer. It’s important to initially taste the beers [before bringing in food],” Lodge says. Take note of whether those beers are light or heavy in body, sweet or dry on the finish, bitter, acidic, tart, roasted, smoky, fruity, nutty, and beyond. A bitter beer can cut the richness of pork fat; a roasted beer can balance the sweetness of a dessert; a fruity or spicy beer can bring out the savory brine of a seafood platter; and a sour beer can intensify the earthiness of root vegetables.
Lodge recommends having extra beers at this initial tasting session. “The ability to eliminate beers that don’t resonate in favor of those that light a creative fire yields a successful menu from start to finish without any ‘forced’ pairings,” she advises.
Serve the Season
“When creating a really extravagant beer-and-food pairing dining experience, I find that everyone is intrigued with seasonal and limited release/rare beer selections,” Lodge explains. For example, fall is the time of year to pair sweet, earthy pumpkin beers with strong blue cheese and toasty Oktoberfest lagers with spicy sausage.
Consider Strength of Flavor
Lighter styles of beer—not just in color but also in body and mouthfeel (such as Pilsner, Hefeweizen, and wheat beer)—are good pairing choices for lighter foods such as salads, seafood, and chicken. Continue through the spectrum by pairing pale ale and English bitter with mild cheeses or glazed pork; amber ale and IPA with richer, spicier foods such as curry; porter with hearty, barbecued meats; and imperial stout with dark chocolate. One popular pairing is dry stout and oysters. Although this style of stout is dark in color, it’s lighter in body than other stouts and therefore complementary to this delicate seafood.
“Although I have seen exceptions to almost all ‘rules’,” Lodge says, “I still maintain that lighter foods go well with lighter beers (and the reverse) in terms of flavor profile. This ensures that one doesn’t overwhelm the other.”
A classic approach to pairing menus is to start light and go dark—so, for example, start with a witbier with steamed mussels, followed by amber ale with barbecued ribs, and finally a robust porter with chocolate molten lava cake.
“I offer traditional approaches (lighter and savory first, etc.) to those new at pairing,” Lodge says, “but toss them out the window with those more experienced. It seems to be a challenge to the chefs to buck tradition, and sometimes challenge equates to creative wizardry.”
_Note: _If you are trying to break this rule, give thought to the reason that it exists. If heavier beers are served before lighter beers in a beer-pairing dinner, Lodge recommends identifying palate fatigue as the challenge (and reason for the rule). “That will assist in creating a successful workaround.”
Lodge affirms that the alcohol level of a paired beer needs to be balanced with the food offering. “For events such as the Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival, it can be hazardous for the beers to be highly alcoholic and be paired with small portions of lighter fare,” she explains. So, for example, pair Belgian golden strong ale with bold and spicy Cajun food—and lots of it. This beer style also stands up well to fried foods and roasted meats.
Are There Any Food and Beer Combinations to Avoid?
Not necessarily, Lodge says, because pairings are dependent upon the palate tasting them. Even foods that tend to present pairing challenges—spinach, artichokes, asparagus, and pickles, for example—have pairing potential with the right beer styles. “The rise in the popularity and availability of saisons and farmhouse beers has helped the food-pairing mission with flavors that were more of a challenge previously,” Lodge says. “Sour beers have also offered additional flexibility in the past few years as they have become more available.”
Lodge maintains that there is really no right or wrong to food and beer pairings. “Experimentation is fun!” she exclaims. “Using guidelines for pairings, such as those available on CraftBeer.com, is a great place to start, but instead of just getting the one cheese that’s listed for that beer style, get three and enjoy trying all of the combinations to see what you prefer for your palate.”
The premise of Lodge’s education mission with regard to craft beer is to offer an environment without judgment—without any right or wrong approaches or perceptions—and to encourage experimentation with beer and food. “Everyone learns more about his/her own palate, about the beer, and about the food in the process,” she says.
Julia Herz, the craft-beer program director of the Brewers Association, says that the effect of a successful pairing is 1 + 1 = 5. “I absolutely support her math,” Lodge says, “and I tend to think of the ‘perfect pairing’ in terms of finding the Holy Grail … complete with the appropriate music and reverence from Monty Python’s movie of the same name.”
“Watching someone experience [his or her] first ‘perfect pairing’ is really cool,” Lodge adds. “It lights up the face, understanding dawns, and the motivation to find more pairings like that is -instantaneous.”
Learn more secrets of perfectly pairing beer and food and find dozens of favorite regional recipes re-imagined with beer in Craft Beer & Brewing’s 2015 issue of Cooking With Beer. Order your copy today!