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Editor’s Note: With Tim Carman away on vacation, Young & Hungry invited Greg Engert, the beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes ChurchKey and Birch & Barley, to blog in his absence.
As I began studying beer and food pairing, I read and read and read. One mistake I think I made early on was to take the notions of beer writers as gospel when it came to matching rather than putting their assertions to the actual test of tasting.
Over the years I have found quite a few of these ideas to be far too sweeping and simplistic, as well as typically positioned against wine. It is as if many beer writers started out with the assumption that wine does not dovetail with myriad foods, and then they theoretically sought to elucidate why beer was a fitting substitute. Unfortunately, beer is not some sort of pairing panacea that can fill in when wine fails. In fact, what is so alluring about beer is also what makes it so difficult to guarantee its pairing perfection: beer offers a titillating and bewildering array of aromas, tastes, textures, and intensities.
And in truth, wine does taste wonderfully with many dishes, as does beer; they just tend to do different things when tasted in congress with food. One general idea I subscribe to is that beer tends to complement the flavors of food, while wine tends to contrast. This is born out by the processes involved in the creation of either beverage. The malts employed in brewing have been “cooked,” resulting in flavors one will find in cooked food: roasted, caramelized, toasted, grilled. And beer is seasoned with hops, but often also orange peel, coriander, ginger, chocolate, etc. This allows for beer to echo the flavors found in foods also cooked and seasoned. I will admit that this sort of commonality makes beer and food pairing a bit more approachable, but it is different than what wine can do with food (and not necessarily better).
Wine can complement from time to time, but I prefer the interaction of contrasting flavors when wine confronts a dish. Wine does not have the cooked malt effect or the seasoning aspect of beer, but demonstrates a host of fermentation aromas and tastes resulting from its production. I think it is helpful to look at wine as a sort of additional saucing for the dish, and one that tends to transform the dish’s (and wine’s) flavors; beer and food have more of a tendency to mutually accentuate the similarities of aroma and taste found therein.
Once I started to realize that pairing is not some either/or activity, that beer and wine can actually both go well with a given dish, depending on the desired tasting effect, I started listening to the wine writers as well. Like it or not, there is far longer history of wine and food pairing and experimentation, and I figured that the lessons they had learned would in some way be germane to my understanding of beer and food. My real breakthrough was learning to overcome the approach of beer versus wine, and to start noticing that wine writers were basing their understanding of pairing upon generalized notions of taste. Though wine and beer are produced in very different ways with often very different end results, some key notions of what is difficult about pairing trump the specific liquid involved.
Beer writers have long bemoaned the inability for wine to deal with spicy cuisine. Their argument has been two-fold: that the high alcohol by volume (abv), lack of carbonation, and tannins in many wines precipitate a startling intensity of heat on the palate. This is true for plenty of wines, and wine writers will admit as much; the problem is that beer does not simply solve the issue of spicy food and alcoholic beverages.
Carbonation is rightfully touted as one of beer’s finest pairing strengths. It can peel rich, sticky foods off of the palate for a fusion of beverage and food flavors, it serves to cleanse the palate between bites and courses, and can even wash away some of the spicier heat mentioned above.
One of the problems with the beer and spicy food presumption is that—these days—the strength of beer is constantly climbing; higher average abv means that many beers also heat up when faced with spicy food. The low-alcohol comparison card is also difficult to support when it comes to tasting menus. Beer writers have liked to note that since beer is lower in alcohol than wine, one will not experience palate fatigue when tasting multiple courses of beer-matched dishes as early as one would with wine. But again beer strengths are constantly climbing, making this point not nearly as pertinent as it has been presumed to be.
The big kicker is the tannic effect. Tannins certainly intensify spicy heat, but also tend to linger on the palate with unpleasant dryness when tasted with most foods; they literally cure the tongue into astringency (“tanning” as with leather). Why? As I have learned from wine professionals, the gritty, almost bitter character of tannins cleaves to the mouth unless consumed with foods rich in fat and/or protein. Fats and proteins will bind to tannins, and soften their effect, sort of sweeping them off of the palate.
Beer writers have celebrated the lack of tannins in beer for some time; malts and hops do contain tannin, but do not surface with the same acuteness as with wine. (It should also be mentioned that the extreme movement toward aging beers on oak chips and in oak barrels is increasing tannin levels in many beers and making them difficult to pair with as well). This lack of tannin is but one way that beer so often pairs with many foods that wine cannot. However, many beers are rife with hop bitterness, and not just Imperial IPAs. Pilsners, pale ales, even a number of Belgian saisons present unmistakably bitter finishes. I sense that beer people have sought to decry the defects of tannic wines with food by insisting on the pairing possibilities for beers that—on account of being hopped—actually bring a good deal of bitterness to the palate. I have read that hoppy beers are excellent with food because their herbal qualities complement the herbal effects of many vegetables and sauces, or that their spicy flavors echo the flavors of spices in countless dishes. Bitterness has also been noted for its ability to help carbonation in cutting into richer, stickier foods. And some have even tried to claim that while the flavors of hops mirror those of spicy dishes, the bitterness also helps to fan the flames of the dish’s heat.
It is interesting that hop bitterness is credited with cutting into rich and fatty foods, not because carbonation can most definitely do so without the assistance of hops, but because this draws a critical comparison between hops and tannins. Once I started learning about the tannic effect with food, I started realizing how similar hop bitterness reacts with many dishes. While the herbal and spicy components of hop flavors could possibly compliment similar flavors in spicy dishes, the bitterness exacerbates the heat of the spice, leaving the mouth fiery and the flavors overwhelmed. A beer with very little hop bitterness—and thus a touch more sweetness—that is lower in alcohol, and may even have some herbal, spicy fermentation-derived flavors, works much better. Think hefeweizen, or a malty dark lager.
I’ve tried drinking beers with noticeable bitterness alongside vegetables in hopes that the herbal component would provide for confluence, but the bitterness lingers too long on the palate. Even thinking that a veggie with a bitter edge, like asparagus, would work proved questionable; instead of mellowing bitterness by compliment, the hop’s presence does not dissipate. Again, a beer with little bitterness and some herbal aromas is better suited.
About the only foods I have had success pairing with hoppy beers are those with intense richness. As with tannins, the fats and proteins tend to mellow the bitter sensation, and the food seems less intensely rich as a result. Steaks and burgers and all things red meat do the trick. I think the same can be said for intensely roasted stouts and some porters: without a richer food, the drying bitterness of roasted malt and grain dominates the taste sensation.
And I have found that the same can be said for that most beer-pairable of all foods: cheese. Time and again, stronger stouts and IPAs are suggested as partners for big, intensely flavored cheeses. Stilton, blue cheese, gorgonzola, and Époisses de Bourgogne are advised due to the intended match of big flavors. But in all cases, the cheeses, while rich, do not quite have the ability to mellow the bitter notes that remain post pairing. I like stronger malty brews, or those with big fruity, spicy, and even funky flavors to go with such heavy-hitters: Barleywines, traditional lambics and gueuzes, Belgian strong ales.
Only semi-hard or hard cheeses seem to stand up to the bittering effect of Imperial stouts and IPAs. These types of cheeses contain immensely flavorful crystallized proteins that provide the sharp characteristic to the cheese. This sharpness mirrors the bitterness of roast and hop, while the crystallized proteins can bind to—and mellow—the beers’ powerful taste.
Beers can be lower in alcohol, are almost always extremely effervescent, and many finish sweet or semi-dry. These characteristics certainly help beer to compliment the flavors of countless dishes, including many with which wines have trouble. But plenty of beers have higher abvs, some are oak-aged, and scores have decidedly bitter tastes; these beers are not as different from wine as we may have previously thought…with regard to food interaction. A hoppy IPA may taste nothing like a tannic Bordeaux, but chemically they react very similarly with many foods.