My home of Minneapolis is full of people who are rather enamored with beer. I’m not talking about bros grabbing a cold one as they scan for ladies between rounds of Buck Hunter* (as apparently all of us do according to a now infamous NY Times article). What I’m referring to is the insurgence of Craft Beer that has gained a strong foothold bolstered by people passionate about not just drinking beer, but how it’s made, how it works, and most importantly, how to infuse unique and artistic flair into something that has long been a mass-produced product. Admittedly, I can in no way be classified as a “Beer Drinker”, but I still watch the movement as well as sample their progress along the way because it’s cool.
As the movement has been progressing it has been looking to the world of wine for a little guidance. Some of it has been general instruction on how be called “Fancy” at dinner parties, but there has also been a push to pair beer with food á la food and wine pairing (the greatest experience known to humans). Honestly, most of it I have seen thus far has been, to put it very nicely, a bit of a stretch. Food science is generally ignored with this effort and it seems mostly to be an exercise in filling content for media to gain the Craft Beer lovers as a readership demographic. So it was with that mentality that I quickly read a few lines of an article entitled: “Beer Vs. Wine” in our local beer rag, The Growler. I skimmed over the first few lines of a portion someone had pointed me to about pairing beer with food and promptly walked away with disgust. The author had sought guidance from a sommelier who gave him a list of Dos and Don’ts and I thought to myself “There is no hope for these people!”
After having a brief conversation immediately following that about why I thought pairing food with beer was worthless (Yes, it was mostly me talking), I began to question whether that was an accurate statement. This was after of course actually pairing a seasonal lager with a dish of andouille sausage and walnut/spinach pesto over a bed of spaghetti squash as seen above and struggling mercilessly to define whether it actually paired well or not. The next day I actually read the full article and you should too. It’s a pretty good article. The author’s conclusion is actually that beer and food pairing is just beginning so people are still feeling their way around the whole concept which I would say is a good summary.
Yet over the past 24 hours my mind has begun to ponder possible interactions between beer and food and I’ve decided that what the beer community really needs is a good framework in order to begin to hash out their own guidelines (not rules) about beer and food pairing. With that, I humbly offer some points from the evidence-based wine world to get them started. I honestly look forward to future progress and I think there will be some surprisingly wonderful results.
Work with good chefs.
The craft of wine making developed alongside the craft of cuisine. Why it was wine instead of beer or another beverage, I have no idea, but regardless, this means that wine and food already have a partnership. Wine makers have generally assumed that their product was to be consumed alongside food and chefs traditionally assume a fine meal will be accompanied by some wine. In other words, sometimes they are literally made for each other. However, if a chef designs a meal with a specific beer in mind, the results will be much better than just trying to pair a beer to a dish already thought up. Keep in mind though, that I don’t think any beers are made with the specific thought that they should be consumed alongside a meal. So once the chefs are willing to give a little taste of what they can do, it would be best to return the favor.
Map out the relationships between the components of food to the components of beer.
This is something the wine world is just starting to do, but the fact that knowledge exists on this topic, it should be incorporated. Maybe I’m missing it, but I can’t find where things like acidity or alcohol are being evaluated on standard beer evaluation methodologies. Maybe they don’t matter when judging the quality of a beer, but they sure do matter when pairing with food. What happens when you mix the varying acidity levels of beers with spicy foods? Why do parts of beer (i.e. carbonation) go well with salty foods? Ask questions and try stuff out. This is an area I can certainly help with. From this experimentation, guidelines can be developed and referenced.
Avoid Dos and Don’ts. Especially Don’ts. Focus on explaining the experience.
We have plenty of fallacies in the wine world that have manifested themselves into rules about what we should or shouldn’t do instead of just stating why something we are experiencing is happening. There are plenty of sommeliers that will tell you never to pair a big tannic red with a light fish. However, if you cook up that fish in a creamy or butter sauce, make sure there is enough salt or citrus acid to reduce the astringency from the tannins, and then force the pairing down someone’s throat, they’d probably think it was pretty good. Therefore, once you have guidelines based on what is actually being experienced in a pairing, let the chef planning the menu or the person consuming the meal decide whether or not they want to experience a certain aspect of the pairing or not.
Encourage the consumption of beer with a meal. Not necessarily by itself.
This is something America as a whole needs to do a better job of. There are a whole host of reasons as to why drinking with a meal and not consuming alcohol by itself leads to a healthier lifestyle. Having the Craft Beer movement be part of this push though would also help establish itself as a beverage that can add to the dinning experience.
Consider alcohol levels.
The alcohol content of wine has slowly been inching upwards so now wines are more commonly reaching the 15-16% ABV levels. It is generally agreed that these higher levels may perhaps be too alcoholic to blend with a dish because they start to overpower them. We are also seeing fewer wines being sold in the 11-13% range which is unfortunate, because this is a generally appreciated area for alcohol to be when being paired with food. So while beer generally sits below the 5% range, some of the more crafty ones are being delivered at higher levels with good results. Now, I think this will vary with the type of beer being made, but my personal opinion is that the most sublime opportunities for beer and wine pairing will be with beer around 9% ABV. The point is that the wine world is leaving the bottom level open for you if you’d like to come in out of the rain.
*As an aside, I played Buck Hunter for the first time down in Iowa a couple of weekends ago…I still don’t get it.