If you have read my other articles on the Art of Beer then you have read me quote my old wine tasting teacher and Sommelier, George Sternfels, when he said, “If you like the wine, drink the wine!”
Now when he said this what he meant was that taste is a very personal choice. How you, or I or anyone else tastes the exact same thing could be completely different. In the end what matters is that you like what you are drinking. He also commented on the general rule that reds are for pork or beef and whites are for fish or chicken. He said, “I have a preference for reds and if I’m eating fish I may not want a white, so I’ll order a red.” But he also knew that certain flavors complemented each other. Certain whites go along much better with a dessert than others, and some reds enhance the spice in a particular dish while others may cover it up.
The same is very true of beer, especially craft beer. But even ordinary American Style Lagers go better with some foods more than others. I can remember for years that I loved lagers with hamburgers or hot dogs or pizza, and of course pretzels, But I have never been able to drink beer while eating pasta without feeling all bloated and unable to do anything else after. You may have experienced the same problem, if not with pasta then with another food.
Now with the rise of craft beer and the multitude of flavors and styles that came with it the opportunity to find a beer that I can eat with pasta has come, not to mention all of the other food and beer combinations that are now available.
The one thing to remember is that when we combine all of these different flavors, what we are really doing is creating new chemical compounds that will react differently with each other. When you are tasting food, what is happening is the chemicals in the food are reacting with the chemicals on your tastes buds to activate certain flavor sensors in your brain. When you drink a liquid with that food then our taste buds are reacting again to a different chemical combination. That’s why when you drink water after eating really spicy-hot foods it makes it worse because the water is simply spreading the flavor around even more in your mouth, but if you eat cheese or drink milk this dissipates the heat from the spice and lets you continue with your eating.
Certain beers go better with spicy foods, and others complement sweet foods better. Some beers are too strong for chicken or fish, and others can’t stand up to beef or wild game.
Two excellent examples just happened recently. The first involves my own homemade marinara sauce. I like to use wine, preferably red, and a little honey in my sauce. This gives it a little sweetness and helps cut down on some of the acidity of the tomatoes. And the wine also imparts its own flavor into the sauce. I used a little bit of a bottle of Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva, which is a very fruity medium bodied Italian wine which I really enjoy. It was also one of the last bottles I purchased back when I was taking the above mentioned wine tasting classes from George and since he has since passed I had been holding onto it as long as possible. But it was a 2009 vintage and I wouldn’t be able to hold onto it too much longer so I decided to use it to make the sauce a few weeks ago and had the rest with dinner.
Now a couple of weeks later I had some leftover sauce that I took out of the freezer and served over a couple of veal parmesan patties. I had spent the day working in the yard and decided to treat myself to a rich dinner afterwards. I wanted to treat myself to a nice beer with dinner but wasn’t sure which to serve. I narrowed it down between two choices, Boulevard Brewing’s Sixth Glass, which is a very nice and smooth Belgian Quad, and Founder’s Brewing Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale, which is a great Scotch Ale. I decided that I want to go with one of these because they are both a little higher in alcohol and that might help bring out some of the wine flavor.
And since I was having a hard time deciding I decided to start the dinner with one and finish it with the other. I started with the Belgian, and was really pleasantly surprised at how well it paired with the homemade red sauce. I was right about the higher alcohol content bringing out the wine flavor of the sauce. But the hoppy flavors also complimented the veal and the sauce.
The Scotch Ale came next and like the Belgian, the higher alcohol content brought out the wine flavor, but the scotch flavor did not compliment the red sauce. It did not make the sauce taste bad, nor did the sauce affect the ale flavor, but they just didn’t pop like the Belgian/Red Sauce combination did.
Now, I will confess that I like both of these ales independently very much. I have been fortunate lately to come across some really good Belgians and have come to enjoy that style a lot more lately than before. And the Wee Heavy or Scotch Ales have been really outstanding in their own rights for the last couple of years. I also have to confess to a preconception going in that the Scotch Ale would fare better than the Belgian. I really like the products that have been coming out of Founders Brewing over the last few years and can’t remember one lately that I did not like. Generally speaking, while I really enjoy both styles I would have to admit leaning toward the Scotch Ale more than the Belgian.
But why, when pairing them with very tasty veal parmesan, did the Belgian pair better? And why did the Scotch Ale not pair so well with this dish when I really like that ale so much?
The second example also happened recently and involved a Beer Pairing dinner, hosted by the Top Restaurant in Gainesville, and featuring a line-up of some excellent beers from Founders Brewing, the same company that made the above mentioned scotch ale. If you’ve been in Gainesville very long then you must have been to the Top, And you are probably well aware of the fact that they can cook anything from a burger to a traditional gourmet dish with equal zest and triumph. It is probably one of the best restaurants in town, if not in the state of Florida.
Like some other Pairing dinners I have been to featuring wine, this was a five course dinner, with each course paired with a different flavor or style of beer from this particular brewery. They also had a welcoming beer to introduce you to what Founders is. And the beer they used for that was the All Day IPA, a really great smooth tasting IPA. The young lady who is the North Florida representative for Founders, I believe her name is Kelly, gave the dinner guests a brief history of Founders and how they came to be and with each beer style she gave a little background on how it came about.
After she did her intro they began bringing out the first course and the beer that would accompany it.
The first course was a Goat Cheese and Corn Soup with a Crab Beignet. And the beer paired with it was the recent release called Devil Dancer IPA. This IPA had a bit more hoppiness to it than the All Day, but it complimented the sweet and creamy flavor of the soup and the beignet very well.
The second course was a Fried Farmer’s Egg, Roasted red Pepper Butter Sauce, Asparagus and Micro Mizuna. It was paired with the Founders Mosaic Promise Single Hop Ale. I am not generally a big asparagus fan but I can eat it. But the red pepper sauce and the Farmer’s egg both helped it go down and the Mosaic helped bring out some of the spiciness of the pepper sauce.
The third course was Sweat Pea Ravioli with Tomato Confit and was served with Founders Curmudgeon Old Ale. I really like old ales and this is one of the better ones out there. And it complimented the flavors of the sweet peas and the tomato confit very well. And I did not get that full feeling from eating the pasta with a beer.
The fourth (and the main course) was a Pork tenderloin served on top of Smoked Gouda Grits with a Red Eye Jus and accompanied by Fava Beans. The paired beer was Founders KBS Bourbon Stout (Kentucky Breakfast Stout). It’s brewed with chocolate and coffee and aged in oak barrels for a year, and is very much worth the wait. And when paired with the dinner grew on me even more than before.
The oaky flavor complimented the pork and helped bring out the smoke gouda flavor in the grits. And the chocolate/coffee combo went really well with the red sauce.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, they brought out the dessert course. It was Toasted Coconut Panna Cotta, Pineapple & Mint Salsa, Grilled Pineapple and Mango, Mint Oil and Pina Colada Ice Cream. It was paired with Founders Mango Magnifico Fruit Beer. I have to say, normally I don’t like coconut in any form. The texture makes me want to gag, and the flavor reminds me of the texture. But this combination of flavors with the dessert, especially when paired with the mango beer was so excellent a combination that the texture didn’t even faze me.
I have to say if the opportunity comes again for another beer pairing dinner, either at the Top or featuring Founders beers, count me in!
But why did these beers from Founders all pair well why the Dirty Bastard I served with my veal parmesan at home not do so well?
The answer is Balance.
Certain flavors and interactions arise in certain styles of beer and these need to be counterbalanced in the food to complement each other.
For example, Hop Bitterness and Roasted Malt flavors and a higher alcohol content or carbonization balance well with sweetness, savory and fat content. That is why some of the heavy ales that have been brewed with bacon tasted well, or cooked well with it.
Sweet or Malty beers balance well against spicy foods or high acidity.
And Hoppy beers balance well against spicy foods.
So the reason the Belgian went well with my homemade red sauce and veal parmesan is that hoppiness and higher alcohol content helped to balance out the sweet and savory flavors I had working in the sauce.
While the heavy ale had the alcohol content to battle the flavors it had too much of the oakiness to blend well with the other flavors.
A friend from work, Steven, came with me to the dinner and he is not quite the beer connoisseur that I am. I don’t think he liked the Old Curmudgeon or the Mango Magnifico as much as I did, but he did agree that when he tried it with the food served with them that he liked them better.
So if there is a beer out there you don’t care for as much as you do others, there may be hope if someone has served an appropriate food flavor to go along with it.
But in the end, I’ll still stick with George’s advice with one caveat…
If you like the beer, drink the beer. If it doesn’t pair well, then change the food.