While I’m sure some people still think beer and food pairing means a six-pack of Budweiser and a Domino’s Pizza, the notion that beer has a place at the table at the best restaurants is pretty much a given nowadays.
Writing the First Look feature for the AJC, I visit a new restaurant every week, 52 weeks a year. So far in 2013, there were very few that didn’t have at least a couple of craft beers in the bottle or on draft. And many boasted thoughtful or even outstanding beer lists, with a range of styles and flavors to match everything from appetizers to desserts.
To me, that means chefs and beverage directors are getting it. Though, sadly, that doesn’t always translate to servers, many of whom would be hard pressed to accurately describe a beer, let alone suggest how to pair it with a particular dish.
I thought about all that recently while talking with John Holl, a beer writer and editor of All About Beer magazine. Holl is the author of “The American Craft Beer Cookbook” (Storey, $19.95), a new collection of recipes that includes stories about brewers and breweries and all kinds of pairing suggestions.
I told Holl the book made me revisit and reconsider some ideas about beer and food pairing. In the words of The Dude, I wondered if my thinking about the subject had become a tad uptight.
I like to think of beer’s malty essence, hop presence and lively carbonation as secret weapons of pairing, easily creating rich harmony and cool contrast with things like cheese and chocolate and even wine’s greatest nemesis, asparagus.
But with the emergence of so many more big, bold, extreme styles, including puckering super sours and beyond bitter double IPAs, it’s hard to say that beer is always food friendly.
Still, as Holl points out, brewing and cooking have a whole lot in common, and at mealtime beer’s versatility of ingredients and flavors give it an edge over other beverages.
“Beer is water, malt, hops and yeast, and each of those four ingredients has a distinctive flavor component that can be compared to food,” Holl said. “Water has mineral content. Malt has everything from biscuit to toffee to chocolate. Hops have citrus, pine, tropical fruit. Yeast has everything from banana to bubble gum to clove.”
As for what works best with what, a potluck or a dinner party is a fine time to explore differing tastes or confirm or deny tried-and-true pairings, like pale ale and spicy food.
“The beer dinner party thing is really fun,” Holl said. “If I’m making a dish that I think will pair well with a brown ale, I’ll ask guests to bring their favorite brown ale, and we’ll pass them around table and see how they work. The beer that you love, I may not be as fond of, but in the the end we’re both right.”
Of course, holiday gatherings are the ultimate dinner party, so why not try out new and different along with classic pairings? With the turkey, will it be Bière de Garde, America amber lager or something much more challenging? Maybe Belgian strong golden ale or English brown ale with the ham? How about a spiced winter warmer with the pumpkin pie?
Craft beer cookbook events
“The American Craft Beer Cookbook” signings with John Holl: 2:30-4:30 p.m. Dec. 8. Sweetwater Brewery Co., 195 Ottley Drive N.E; 4-7 p.m. Dec. 9, 5 Seasons Westside,1000 Marietta St. More info: JohnHoll.com.
— By Bob Townsend, AJC Drink blog.