STORY WRITTEN BY DAVE MINIACI
For Digital First Media
Imagine drinking a nice cold pint of your favorite beer. Maybe it’s a rich, roasted stout; maybe it’s a crisp pale ale.
Then what meal to have with it? A juicy steak? A refreshing salad?
Now that’s some food for thought.
And in the world of modern day craft beer, food pairings are becoming as artfully crafted as the drinks and eats themselves.
But what goes into a good pairing? Well, a lot of it depends on what flavors you want and what styles you enjoy.
“You have to know what you want to accomplish with pairing a particular beer with a particular dish,” said Dave Wood, brewer at Barren Hill Tavern & Brewery in Lafayette Hill. “Do you want the beer to only compliment the dish, for example, a Russian Imperial Stout paired with a Dark Chocolate Devil’s Food Cake? You might go into chocolate overload but that might be what you are going for. Another pairing option would be to pair a beer with a dish to accentuate a particular ingredient, for example, pair a Rauchbier with a New England Clam Chowder. The smokiness of the beer could really make the bacon in the chowder come out.”
The right complement
It’s not necessarily about picking similar flavors. What works best are the foods and beers the complement certain aspects of each other.
Chefs have even gone a step further. Walter Staib, the chef at City Tavern in Old City, actually seasons some of his meats with Benjamin Franklin Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce, one of four beers in the Ales of the Revolution series with Yards Brewing Company featured at City Tavern. The others are Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale, George Washington’s Tavern Porter and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Ale. City Tavern does not have any other beers on tap but frequently pairs those four beers with certain dishes for “beer dinners.”
“Early on it was really customer driven (pairing food and beer),” Staib said. “Customers always wanted to have Jefferson’s beer and have it with some of Jefferson’s food. So we started to do that.”
He said they have done many pairings with the Franklin, Jefferson and Hamilton ales but he only has one pairing in mind for the fourth ale.
“The (George Washington) porter and the Martha Washington’s Chocolate Mousse Cake is like a match made in heaven,” Staib laughed. “Those two just want to be together.”
In addition to the brews, Staib also cooks recipes of our forefathers, making for a special kind of pairing.
Staib thinks if Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and Hamilton were alive today, they would enjoy what City Tavern has done with their beer and food recipes. He does not, however, think they would take to some of the more extravagant brews in the craft beer scene.
“I think they would like a good ale,” Staib said. “But I think some of these heavy beers and fruit beers, they would not be for them. They would stick to their ales.”
And it isn’t always about picking a beer to pair with a dish. Sometimes it can go all the way back to the brewing process.
“Making beer in a brewpub allows me the chance to be a little more creative with my recipes,” Wood said. “A great example would be a beer I brewed over the winter called O.G.B. (Orange Ginger Belgian IPA). Chef Paul Trowbridge and I were getting ready to host a ceviche and beer pairing dinner. Most of the time the chef works with beer that is already on hand and create his dishes the work with the flavors of the beer. With one of the pairings, I decided to create a beer to compliment one of Chef’s ceviche dishes. It really hit the mark.”
The science behind it
But there’s not just preference behind the mix and match of flavors. There is science that backs up some of the consensus.
There are five basic tastes that humans can notice in their mouths: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory, according to Dr. Jake Lahne, an assistant professor in Culinary Arts and Food Science at Drexel University. These tastes have various properties that can attract each other. A prominent flavor combination, Lahne said, is salty and bitter.
“One thing that goes really well with beer is cheese, because cheese is quite salty and it reacts well with the bitterness of some beers,” Lahne said. “The saltiness of the cheese can reduce some of the bitter aspects of the beer and bring some of the other flavors to the forefront.”
And it is some of those more complex flavor combinations that attract others, like Manayunk Brewing Co.’s Evan Fritz.
While a chocolate stout with chocolate cake might be delicious to some, for Fritz that would be the perfect scenario to enjoy some kind of fruit beer. He said he feels food and beer pairings can sometimes be “boring.” That is part of the reason he had Manayunk Brewing Company remove their beer and food pairing suggestions from their menus. Part of the reason is the brewpub rotates its beers frequently, which makes it harder to have standard pairings. But Fritz said when he got to the brewery, their pairings on the menu included options like a raspberry salad with a raspberry beer.
“People always try to over simplify it,” he explained. “What makes a good pairing is something more risky. Get something that complements it, rather than tastes like it. Maybe you have a light fizzy saison and figure you’ll have a light chicken dish to go with it, but I would like something hearty, like a good meat dish, to cut through that light fizziness.”
A matter of taste
There are certainly several ways to pair foods and beers, and for some it really does come down to preference.
Chef Staib said he likes to pair the Jefferson ale with seafood or pasta. Wood prefers spicy foods matched with hoppy IPAs. For Fritz?
“One of my all-time favorites would be some kind of spicy, ghost pepper or habanero IPA or beer and some kind of barbeque,” he said. “The smoke cuts through the spice and vice versa and they just go well together. A perfect pairing for me, and it’s making my mouth water right now, is like a really good smoked pork shoulder or brisket with a pepper IPA.”