We’re Brewed to Go With Food

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 25, Issue 3
July 1, 2004 By Charles Finkel

Instruction for pairing food with beer is a little like scripting sex. In both, “common senses” should prevail. Each is a lot of fun with little direction, yet The Joy of Sex and the Playboy Advisor vie in readership with the Koran, Torah and New Testament. Similarly, books about the appetizing subject of food and beer, like Michael Jackson’s Ultimate Beer and Garrett Oliver’s Brewmaster’s Table, are delicious reads that add pleasure to something we already enjoy.

Writing about beer and food is nothing new. Chronicling life in ancient Egypt, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the fifth century BC, “They eat loaves of bread of coarse grain which they call cyllestis. They make their beverage from barley, for they have no vines in their country. They eat fish raw, sun dried or preserved in salt brine.” And, when the European crusaders invaded Jerusalem to spread the gospel, they found tables spread with pineapples, figs, citrus, coconuts, lentils and sugar. Mustard, saffron, cloves, cinnamon, lavender and rosemary—all unknown in the West—spiced the diet and sparked the imagination. What to drink? Beer, of course, and in myriad styles!

Modern Beer Missionaries

Beer and spices were introduced to the West through the European monasteries by the crusaders returning from the holy land. About 700 years later, with two dozen salespeople, I led a pilgrimage to the holy land of beer—Belgium, where more styles of beer are brewed than perhaps in any other nation. Our first stop was Orval abbey and its brewery, an example of cleanliness next to godliness.

My beer missionaries joined our Trappist brothers for heavenly hash—organic vegetable soup, freshly baked multigrain bread, spit-roasted rabbit, abbey cheese, and a special bottling of Orval Trappist Ale diluted 50 percent with their famous Mathilda spring water: all grown, made, foraged or hunted locally.

Doing most of the talking, we supped with men of few words at ancient tables, hand-hewn from trees felled in the local woods. The half-strength Orval is reserved for them. It is a simple beer, dry and refreshing. At home, we relish the intensely hoppy, yeast-laden Orval as an aperitif with salted almonds and olives.

The dinner was a metaphor for the work of the monastery—harmony and balance. We learned that revenues from the brewery are used to feed the hungry.

That a beverage brewed from only malt, hops, yeast, water, and occasionally sugar and spices, can be so complex and satisfying is a miracle no less exciting than converting water to wine. No wonder the arcane ale alchemy practiced in this diminutive nation in the center of Europe evolved from Orval and other monasteries.

A Shame of International Proportions

Although not as well known for its cuisine, Belgium by no means takes a culinary back seat to its kissing cousin and next-door neighbor, France. France is Belgium’s biggest beer export market, and in turn, tiny Belgium consumes a respectable 24.3 liters of wine per capita, 70 percent of it French.

In both countries, asking for a real beer with dinner in a good restaurant is like ordering a BLT in Baghdad. There are beer specialist restaurants in Belgium, especially in touristy Bruges, though they are few and far between. Beers in bistros and brasseries are too often the bland brands of global brewers. Carbonnade, the Flemish national dish, is a hearty beef stew made with beer, but often served with red wine.

This is a shame of international proportions, since there are beers for every palate. Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that many, but by no means all, of Belgium’s best-known beers are on the sweet side. Beers like Westmalle, Duvel, Chimay, Corsendonk and Lindemans’ fruited lambics have the residual sugar of a French Sauterne, Vouvray or Coteaux du Layon—wines seldom served with the main meal. They are superb pick-me-ups, soul-satisfying digestives, and delightful with dessert, but just too sweet for daily dinner.

Fortunately, there are plenty of exceptions—like Witkap Pater, marvelous with mussels; Saison Dupont, delicious with fresh fish; and bone-dry Lindemans’ Gueuze Cuvée René, with a nutty, damp cave character that is a fine match for blue cheese and hearty soups like waterzooi.

Beers, here, defy categorization. They may be seasoned with honey, mint, chocolate, fruit, spices and herbs, including, of course, hops. If not actual ingredients, the aroma or taste of leather, tobacco, oak, caramel, coffee, plums, black pepper, salt air, and even dirty socks are waiting to be discovered in various beers. Finding foods to match such disparate flavors in the beer is an exploration equivalent to practicing the Kama Sutra.

Flanders extends to both Belgium and France. French Flanders, just north of Champagne, celebrates with stylish bottle-conditioned bières de garde, like Castelain—delicious with veal in cream sauce, pork with apples, and onion soup.

America’s Belgian-style Pairings

Across the sea, favorite Belgian-style combinations are lemony Celis White with crab salad; or Unibroue’s apple-flavored Éphémère Pomme with smoked or cured ham, like Iowa artisan Prosciutto La Quercia.

New Glarus Belgian Red is rounder than the sour Belgian krieks and marries wonderfully with a variety of foods, from roast duck with cherry sauce to sweet and sour soup. New Belgium’s herbal Biere De Mars is out of this world with a saucer of rocket and sun-dried tomato salad dressed with artisan blue cheese and aged balsamic vinegar.

Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre may be a hard name to swallow, but the deep mahogany ale is not—especially with Roquefort-stuffed beef tenderloin, or rare organic buffalo steak au poivre. Beer with potato latkes, matzo ball soup and stuffed cabbage rolls? Try Hair of the Dog’s Ruth, named for a great cook, the brewer’s grandmother—enjoy!

Pairing Principles

The balance of aroma, bouquet, acidity, sweetness, texture, mouthfeel, effervescence, temperature, color, flavor, strength and even origin are the keys to unlocking the beer and food mystery. It would be nice to serve a brew from Mexico with tacos or Chinese beer with dim sum but, too often, local beers are copies of global megabrews. Taste should trump territory. Fortunately, there are plenty of regional relatives, like Boulevard Pale Ale with Kansas City barbecue, Brooklyn Brown Ale with Jewish deli fare, or Smuttynose Robust Porter at a clam bake.

In cooking with or pairing beer, take into consideration bitterness of IPA or pilsner, yeast in wheat beer, fruit in flavored lambics, sugar in doppelbock or barely wine, or coffee, chocolate or caramel character in stout as if it were itself an ingredient in the dish. When I cook with a hoppy beer, I usually don’t serve that beer with the dish—it’s just too much of a good thing.

Germanic Roots

Beer and bread have a lot in common. Beer derived its name from barley, which along with wheat, made farmers out of hunter-gatherers. To Bavarians, beer is “liquid bread.” Like bread, malt, the heart of most beers, is complementary with almost every dish.

Bavaria’s ancient Reinheitsgebot pure food law, passed in 1516, prevents brewers from using sugar, fruit or spices, other than hops.

Five centuries before the Reinheitsgebot, Weihenstephan, originally a monestary, became the first commercial brewery in Bavaria. Today it is the leading brewing university, respected worldwide. On one visit, I was invited to a mid-morning “coffee” break. Instead of coffee, we were served vanilla-scented hefe weissbier, soft pretzels, butter from the university dairy, and weisswurst, a delicate veal sausage. Specializing in wheat beer, the brewery also offers a dunkel (dark) and kristall (filtered) version.

Dan Gordon was the first American Weihenstephan graduate in 40 years. Not only are his Gordon Biersch beers designed for food, they are also used as ingredients in dishes served at Gordon Biersch brewpubs. Recommended are spicy beer boiled prawns, with Märzen and glazed chicken wings with Pilsner.

Other microbreweries and brewpubs have deep Germanic roots. Stoudt’s full-bodied Festbier, served at their Old World village restaurant, is wunderbar with schnitzel, spaetzle and brewery baked artisan bread. New Glarus Brewing Co. is nestled in picturesque New Glarus, WI, a town with a strong Swiss heritage. Served with cheese fondue or sauerbraten, their Edel Pils bridges the Swiss, German and Wisconsin borders. No wonder: brewery co-owner, Dan Cary apprenticed at the Ayinger Brewery, not far from Weihenstephan.

Memorable Meals

Brauerei Gasthof Hotel Aying, in Aying, Bavaria, is elegant and sophisticated—rated among Germany’s top restaurants by the gourmet magazine of Germany, Der Feinschmecker. The wine list is impressive, but most people choose Aying’s extraordinary range of malty beers to make their meal memorable.

In early spring, fresh white asparagus is a specialty. This queen of vegetables, crowned with golden seasonal Ayinger Maibock, is regal. The lingering aftertaste is like fresh flowers after a spring rain. On the wild side, venison with a side of spaetzl, and amber, toasty Altbairisch Dunkel is a step back in time, the refreshing beer offering a roasted barley counterpoint to the barely roasted meat. Chef Josef Rampl’s sinful apple pancakes and luxurious black Celebrator Dopplebock take the cake for marrying malt, fruit, sugar and spice.

At Liebhard’s, a tree-shaded beer garden across Aying’s main road, the aroma of comfort food—spicy or smoky sausages, spit-roasted chicken, deep fried schnitzel, sauerkraut, freshly baked soft salty pretzels—and the sweet scent of the nearby brewery fill the air. With the exception of weisswurst and cloudy golden Bräu-Weisse, you couldn’t exactly call this light fare, but in the summer garden, with tall glasses of amber Ur-Weisse, or when the autumn winds blow, with draft Oktoberfest Märzen, the experience alone is worth a trip to Bavaria. Down the road, at the local Italian restaurant, wood-fired pizza and Ayinger Jahrhundert-Bier speak to one another in a universal language few wines understand.

On another occasion, along with Bräu Franz and Angela Inselkammer, we traveled to one of France’s great three-star restaurants, Auberge de I’ll, in Alsace. The king of Thailand was a guest while we were there, and a couple of red Ferraris gave the garage some needed color. The tasting menu featured an amuse bouche, an appetizer of terrine of foie gras with truffles; a second of salmon soufflé (from the Il river that runs out front,) a main course of superb lamb in puff pastry, salad, local fruit tart, then farmhouse Munster followed by a second dessert of homemade chocolate truffles and other sweets.

We had a different wine with each course and by the time we got to the lamb, we craved a refreshing glass of beer. We were there to celebrate the success of our collaboration, but also seized the opportunity to present our beers to the third generation chef/owner. He loved Ayinger Bräu-Weisse, and bought some for the restaurant, though I suspect he drank it in the kitchen rather than offering it on the list of 850 wines. There and at other serious restaurants, the relatively low price of beer works against its acceptance. Such a restaurateur would rather double his money on a $50 wine than on a few-dollar beer.

Back in the USA: Masters of Food and Wine

Ayinger beers were the first ever to be invited to participate in California’s prestigious Masters of Food and Wine. Along with the Inselkammers, my wife and I took part in a week of tastings, lunches, dinners, cooking demonstrations, and a mushroom hunt in Carmel Valley. At the opening reception, our table was set up between those of Nobu, serving seared ahi tuna and Carnegie N.Y. Deli, offering miniature corned beef sandwiches on seeded Jewish rye bread.

Around the room were samples from many of the nation’s best restaurants, interspersed with wines from California’s top vineyards, and estate wineries from all over Europe. Chefs and wine makers staffed the tables. Ours were the only beers and we couldn’t help but wonder if people who had paid handsomely to attend the event, and could drink wines costing from $25 to $250 a bottle, would consider beer worthy of the occasion.

As the elegant room filled with formally attired guests, they began their exploration, table to table. They tried Jahrhundert-Bier with the slightly seared tuna and Bräu-Weisse with the salty sandwiches. They brought the beers to other tables and they brought their friends to ours, the most popular of the hundred or so there. It was quite obvious to the participating restaurateurs, many of whom added Ayinger beers to their lists. We all added a few pounds.

Everyday Eating and Drinking

For my money, it’s hard to top British-style ales as beers best suited to a broad variety of everyday foods. Beefeaters on both sides of the Atlantic beat a path to pale ale—next to pilsner, the world’s most popular beer style. With steaks and other cuts of beef, we usually serve pale or brown ale, like Samuel Smith’s Organic, Pale or Nut Brown Ales, Fuller’s ESB, Young’s bottle conditioned London Ale, Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, or Alaskan Amber.

For lamb, I choose an IPA, as the added bitterness cuts through the tasty fat that makes the rack so irresistible. With heaps of herbs, IPA can also take the heat from highly spiced foods. Favorites include Anderson Valley Hop Ottin’, Magic Hat Blind Faith, Eel River Organic, Victory Hopdevil, Pike, Goose Island and Harpoon IPAs. Dreadnaught Imperial IPA from the Three Floyds and Dogfish Head India Brown Ale are supercharged brews—high-test in alcohol, residual sugar, fruit and bitterness—best with dishes that smoke.

I’m crazy about Samuel Smith’s Famous Taddy Porter with our local Olympia oysters (Ostrea lurida) on the half shell, though there are, fortunately, a host of excellent porters now available. Some other favorites include Deschutes Black Butte, Elysian Perseus, Pike XXXX and Hales. The sweet sea air saltiness of the tiny mollusks contrasts with the earthy espresso maltiness of porter. The color contrast is a lovely ying and yang of food and beer. Alaska Smoked Porter with smoked oysters is a very cool match.

Rounder, slightly less dry oatmeal stouts are my choice for the more ubiquitous Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas). Without the saltiness of the Olympias, with less glycogen (sugar) than their smaller cousins, they call for a rounder beer with more fruit.

If I have a session beer, it is also an oatmeal stout: Smith’s Celebrated Oatmeal Stout. It is delicious with the spiciness of foods as far afield as Indian curry and Thai ginger, yet it is delicate enough to drink with a mushroom omelet or simple salad for brunch.

Other favorites are organic Wolaver’s, McAuslan’s St. Ambroise, Frederick Brewing’s Wild Goose, Goose Island, and Anderson Valley Barney Flats oatmeal stouts. Stout or porter? I love them both. Most stout is drier, with more coffee and chocolate notes, though the differences can be subtle, like the differences in oyster varieties. Crassostrea virginica, the indigenous eastern oysters, are packed with flavors as mysterious as the sea itself. Complex elixirs like Magic Hat Heart of Darkness, Mendocino Black Hawk Stout, Bar Harbor Cadillac Mountain Stout, or Pike XXXX solve the dark mystery.

In food and beer, seasonality should also be considered. I enjoy effervescent wheat and wit beers on the patio with gazpacho, crab salad and even wood-fired pizza all summer, but when Jack Frost shows his head, the head on my tall wheat beer glass is gone—until next summer.

After centuries of King Gambrinus’s reign in Belgium, Uncle Sam is now arm-wrestling for the title of “most brewing styles.” It’s surely the influence of Belgian and other imports to America’s shores. Idiosyncratic brews, flowing out of bars and beer coolers across America, are as delicious with food as the fruit of the vine. As these paragraphs illustrate, there is a beer that will complement almost any food.

Forget the common urge to serve beer only with snacks, before or after a meal. Use your all of your senses and enjoy your next meal with one of the world’s wonderful and delectable brews.

Charles Finkel
Although he claims it was not silver, Charles Finkel was apparently born with a spoon in his mouth, and glass in his hand. His fascination with food and drink led to a career that includes starting a wine importing company; constructing a winery; building a brewery/pub; with his wife Rose Ann, operating a specialty food store/restaurant; founding importers Merchant du Vin Corp.; and writing about food and drink. He admits to a prejudiced palate based on his personal affection for the breweries he introduced to the U.S. market: Samuel Smith, Orval, Lindemans, and Ayinger to name a few.