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Lucy Saunders
4230 N. Oakland #178
Shorewood WI
53211 USA
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Progressive pairings: beer and food at the table

Craft beer belongs at the dinner table as much, if not more so, than wine.

Yet in the minds of many restaurant chefs and patrons, craft beer is like the boisterous kid brother of the beverage world - fun, but not grown up enough to be taken seriously.

This year, the craft brewing industry turns 21 at the Great American Beer Festival. So, it's time for professional chefs and brewers to promote beer's place at the table.

To heighten beer appreciation, think about flavor progressions in pairing beer with food.

There's no one map to making a mouthwatering match, but in designing a menu, "build beers in weight and intensity to one or two peaks of flavor," says real ale expert Mark Dorber of London.

Do you want to start with a big, bold strong ale, and wend down the flavor wheel to a light, fruity finish? Or start with something spritzy and refreshing, and build the progression of flavors to a crescendo of chocolate and stout?

Jim Parker of the Oregon Brewers Guild faced such a quandary when designing beer pairings for a dinner with Chef Noah Bekofsky of the Salishan Lodge for a corporate event with Nike. "Sometimes, it's more interesting to start strong, with a beer that gets everyone's attention," Parker says. One such example is the pairing of Hair of the Dog Fred with a savory onion tart in a barley malt glaze.

Certainly, pairing beer with appetizers is a simple way for a restaurateur or chef to help customers make the transition from drinking beer at the bar, to pairing beer with dinner dishes. In Walnut Creek, California, the new Pyramid Alehouse features a roster of appetizers designed to be tasted with the house brews. Head chef Bob Allison says, "Beer and food is so popular here, because the climate is warmer and people like to eat and drink outdoors. We send lots of starters out to the patio, especially the House Tapas."

Perched in a nest of shoestring potatoes, the Pyramid's take on Scotch eggsPyramid Ale House, Walnut Creek, features an updated version of the bar snack, Scotch eggs. Photo courtesy Pyramid Brewing Co. (pictured at right) features Thai lemongrass and chili sausage, rolled thin and wrapped around a hard-cooked egg. It's deep fried and served with dipping sauces, "to make it a good finger food." Allison also serves lots of the Publican's Plate, a selection of California-made goat's milk brie and chevre, with sugar-glazed grapes.

"I like it best with the Pyramid Apricot Ale," he adds.

"It's easier to make a good pairing with you start by tasting the beer, and design the dish to match its flavors," explains brewer Darron Welch, head brewer and food enthusiast at the Pelican Pub and Brewery, Oregon. "When you're locked into brewing 450 gallons at a time, it's more cost-effective to design the flavors of each dish to match your beer."

Methods of preparation make a huge difference, too. It can be misleading to give blanket guidelines on beer and food pairings, such as "serve fish with light golden ales." A broiled whole salmon tastes milder, and less challenging, than a smoked salmon with a garnish of Meyer lemon and capers. "I'd recommend something richer, and maltier, such as an American brown ale with the smoked salmon," says Welch, "and a crisper, hoppier IPA to contrast with broiled salmon."

At the Alaskan Brewing Co., president Geoff Larson loves to cook, and his beer and food pairings have been in demand at events such as the Aspen Food & Wine Fest, American Culinary Federation, and regional food festivals. Kristi Monroe, who works in marketing at Alaskan Brewing Co., mentions the influence of both seasonal ingredients and preparation techniques.

"If we grill steak plain, we serve Alaskan Amber," says Monroe. "If we use a Cajun rub, then we serve ESB. Grilled halibut or prawns call for Alaskan Pale or Summer Ale. So much depends on the spices, accompaniments or sauces.

Sometimes we all have something different and have a couple of different glasses for different beers, so we can share tastes and compare notes."

Seasonal styles of beer, as well as seasonal ingredients, can influence the drinker's tastebuds, too. This summer, Welch looks forward to pairing foods with a new summer ale at the Pelican, modeled after an English seasonal specialty.

"I wanted to brew a beer that's not so high in alcohol, something less heavy for the summer heat, with some wheat malt for a lighter body, and more of an orange-marmalade hop aroma." His model for this new brew is the Summer Lightning from England's Hopback Brewery. "I think it will be delicious with seafood," Welch predicts.

Alex Helser, general manager of the Portland Brewing Company's Tap Room, recalls a very different seasonal progression. "Last November, we hosted a dinner with guest chef Phillippe Boulot of the Heathman Hotel," says Helser of the event, mostly set up as a media tasting and promotion.

Chef Boulot prepared a progression of richly flavored foods, paired with complementary, malty ales. "The favorite pairings were the entrée of pork braised in Black Watch Cream Porter, with MacTarnahan whisky-glazed acorn squash, served with the porter; and the dessert of Winter Spice Cake with Cinnamon Mascarpone and Cranberry Sauce with the Bobby Dazzler winter ale," says Helser.

Other chefs take a lighter approach to beer and food pairings.

"I like to pair beer with very simple flavors, not complex dishes with lots of sauces or layered flavors," says Chef Cory Schreiber, owner of Wildwood in Portland, Oregon.

"We feature seasonal beers at Wildwood, such as the Full Sail Summer Ale and Widmer Hefeweizen. These are delicious with steamed mussels, fried razor clams or sharp, aged cheeses."

But it is possible to pair beer with more elaborate fare. In May, Chef Jody Denton of Lulu in Palo Alto, CA, prepared luscious food at the Deschutes Brewery (bar pictured below). Bar photo coutesy of Deschutes Brewery
Hors d'oeuvres started with fritters of risotto and English peas, prosciutto ham & Parmesan cheese, plus savory tarts filled with crème fraiche, garlic and Chanterelles mushrooms.

Country Fava Bean Soup matched with the Dance Orchestra Alt most harmoniously, followed by skillet-seared bass with artichokes and anchovy butter - a fragrant entrée with Rickreal Rye Steam Beer. The Devil's Garden Dubbel strong character underscored the richness of beef braised in Barolo wine with olives and greens over soft garlic polenta. Chef Denton plans to branch beyond Northern California with a new restaurant in Bend, Oregon, later this year.

Most of all, beer can withstand the acidity of marinades and vinaigrettes, making it a perfect foil for summertime salads and grilled marinated meats. In Victoria, BC, Spinnaker's Taproom serves salads made with malt vinegars and vinaigrettes, and grilled steaks from spent grain-fed, organically raised Highland beef, paired with their award-winning ales.

One of my favorite pairings in the summer is Pyramid Apricot Ale with grilled pork tenderloin brushed with honey mustard. Here are other summertime choices:

Butterflied leg of lamb, grilled with garlic and rosemary - paired with strong porter or stout

Grilled salmon with lemon and dill - paired with hoppy IPA

Sauteed wild mushrooms and romaine salad - paired with Weissbier

Smoked pork loin or barbecue with hot white pepper basting sauce - paired with fruity Belgian-style ale

Falafel sandwiches made with hummus and garlic - paired with Kolsch

Chef Ken Hueston uses Spinnaker's beer, from wort to finished brew, as an ingredient in many dishes, too. "When I think about a beer and food pairing, I think in terms of balance," says Hueston. "I want the food flavor to be enhanced by the beer." That concept of balance works well, even across regional markets.

From Las Vegas, Nevada to Seattle, Gordon Biersch restaurants serve beer and food far beyond basic pub fare. In Las Vegas, Biersch serves more steaks, and in Seattle, the menu features more seafood and Asian flavors. "We have to change the menu to accommodate regional tastes," says corporate executive chef Craig Erickson.

"But always, we approach pairing food and beer as a synergy, so that one flavor doesn't dominate."

Another tactic in regional flavor pairings is to research the origins of beer styles and the foods of their native countries. The Rockfish Grill in Anacortes, WA, just concluded its winter series of brewer-chef dinners.

According to Rick Starr, "We explored the regional affinities that exist between food and beer in the United Kingdom, Holland and the Netherlands, and Belgium. We had a great response, because we brewed a special beer to style for each event, and brought in guest beers from importers, too."

So whether it's by the glass, or cooked in a dish, beer belongs at the table. Just serve a sampling of different beers at your next dinner, and find a memorable match.



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