The art of pairing food with beer
March 8, 2011
When thinking of the perfect liquid accompaniment for a decadent meal, most people reach into the wine cellar to find a match. But with the wide variety of styles available, beer can be a much better, and more unique, choice for your next dinner party.Pairing food with beer is a lesson in flavor hooks and contradictions, says Steven Pauwels, brewmaster for Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, Mo. Pauwels’ credentials include a first-place finish at this year’s Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival Beer & Food Pairing Smackdown. Other breweries in the competition included Crazy Mountain Brewing, from Edwards, Flying Dog Brewing Co., from Maryland, and Breckenridge Brewery. Brewers were presented with a food and had to pair it up with one of their brews. A panel decided who had the best pairing.During the Commercial Tasting portion of the beer festival, brewers from Great Divide Brewing in Denver had a plate of blue cheese as a complement to their Old Ruffian Barley Wine-Style Ale. The brewery describes the beer as “aggressive, with its bold hop flavors and huge hop bitterness.””Blue cheese works well with bitter, hoppy beers, intense flavors,” Pauwels says. “Funky beers – funky, wet dog, horse blanket aroma – compare with the funky flavor of blue cheese. So you look for a flavor hook or a contradiction, which is what you try to find with food and beer pairings.”Pauwels says people may think that a raspberry wheat would go well with a raspberry dessert, but often, the sweetness of the dessert makes the beer taste overly bitter. A contradictory beer is a much better choice to enhance the flavors of the dessert and the brew.”Let’s say you do something with raspberry,” Pauwels says. “You have to find something contradictory, like a coffee or chocolate stout. Together, they work really well.”For the Smackdown competition, Pauwels paired Boulevard’s Tank 7, a farmhouse ale, with the food item provided, a 2-year-old cheddar cheese.”The textbook pairing for that (cheese) would be an American pale ale and an IPA,” Pauwels says. “But what we did was we sat around with our tasting panel and we came up with Tank 7 as a better pairing.”Pale ales and IPAs work well with cheese because the cheese is slightly fatty and salty.”To cut through the fattiness on the palate, you need some carbonation and bitterness, but it’s really delicate,” Pauwels says. “You can overpower it, so you have to find something that really pairs up well. Sometimes, the IPAs overwhelm the flavor a bit. It’s a balancing act.”
Kevin Selvy, of Crazy Mountain Brewing Co. in Edwards, went with the brewery’s Mountain Livin’ Pale Ale when choosing a beer for the competition. The pairing went over well, as Crazy Mountain walked away with second place.”(The cheddar) was kind of a tough cheese to work with,” Selvy says. “We sat down with a group and talked about what would need to be there to pair a beer with this food – bitterness, acidity – to make it work. We came up with a list of ideas and tasted through all of our beers, narrowed it down and made a group decision that the pale ale was the way to go.”Pauwels chose the farmhouse ale to go with the cheddar because of its high carbonation. He says most people think of wine when pairing with cheese, but beer is a much better complement.”Beer and the cheese are a pairing made in heaven,” he says. “Wine misses the carbonation to clean the palate. Wine has acidity, but it’s not as effective as the carbonation.”The way to choose a beer, Pauwels says, is to pick one with a flavor that complements the other flavors of a food or dish or vice versa.”With beer, there’s sweetness, sourness and bitterness, but there’s no salt component in beer,” Pauwels says. “But that’s what cheese has, which is why it’s complementary to beer.”So next time you’re faced with a choice of what to serve with your culinary creations, try choosing a hoppy companion for everything from appetizers to desserts.