After a historically brief period of banishment that saw beer restricted to the bar stool or the rec room couch, about a decade ago, beer slipped back into the kitchen, and tentatively pulled up a chair at the dining table.
The idea that beer belongs with food—both in it as an ingredient and beside it as a meal beverage—seems natural to anyone who knows beer’s history as a product of the hearth, just like fresh bread. Yet beer lovers are groping to make the case for the value beer can bring to a meal.
Chefs such as Lucy Saunders and Candy Schermerhorn have been among the most persuasive advocates, lending the credibility of a culinary institute training to the recipes they’ve published that incorporate beer. Beer writers and the occasional food writer have become comfortable with writing about foods and beers that go together.
If readers of this magazine would like an example of the growing acceptance of beer as a beverage for meals, glance at the reviews in Beer Talk, past and present. Food used to make a rare appearance: all six beer experts now routinely refer to the meals they would enjoy with the beers they review. The results can be just as hunger-inducing as they are thirst-provoking!
Michael Jackson and, in particular, Steve Beaumont have looked beyond specific recipes to propose general principles of flavor that suit particular beers to particular foods.
Garrett Oliver, one of the Beer Talk experts, is the latest to focus on principles of food and beer, but as far as I know of, the first professional brewer to do so. Oliver, the brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery, encourages Americans, who drink twelve times as much beer as wine, to think about their favorite beverage in a new way.
In The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food, he argues that the rediscovery and proliferation of traditional beer styles puts new flavor opportunities within anyone’s reach. “My feeling is that both wine and beer reach their best expression with food, but that beer is by far the most versatile partner. That’s because real beers have an incredible range of flavors—all of which, when appropriately matched, make for a perfect complement to specific dishes.”
The Brewmaster’s Table isn’t a cookbook. Instead, Oliver sets down a number of guidelines in early chapters for pairing food and beer, and devotes the remainder of the book to his visits to the world’s great breweries, accounts of their histories and beers, and descriptions of the foods that go best with the beers.
Perhaps his most tantalizing idea is the “flavor hook…the part of the beer’s flavor and aroma that matches, harmonizes or accentuates the flavors in your food. When the flavors meet on your tongue, they ‘recognize’ each other and this creates a harmony.” As an example, he points to the caramel flavors that develop in foods that are grilled or roasted: he argues that these foods—grilled meats, caramelized onions—find their counterpart flavors in beers that, themselves, have a caramel accent.
Returning to a more conventional approach to food and beer, former chef Jay Harlow has published The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook. This is, familiarly, a book organized around foods, not concepts. However, rather than devoting chapters to courses (appetizers, soups, entrees) or principal ingredients (fish, chicken, vegetables), Harlow organizes his beer-flavored recipes by global region—which may suggest some convergence with Oliver’s “flavor hook.” After all, what is a chapter entitled “Malt and Hops, Meet Ginger and Soy” about but the dominant flavor hooks of Asian cuisine and the beer flavors that enhance that hook?
I looked for points of comparison: did the brewmaster and the chef ever discuss the same food, and, if they did, did they suggest the same beer style? Not really. Harlow is less rigorous than Oliver: many delicious-sounding recipes are accompanied by a “Which Beer?” note that simply says “any lager.” This is really a compendium of dishes that are friendly to beer, rather than the unified theory on food and beer.
Oliver’s book, on the other hand, dissects the flavor profile of individual beer brands and then explains which characteristics of a particular food will be enhanced, but you have to locate your own recipes.
Oliver’s book belongs by the comfy chair, to inspire you about beer, breweries and flavor: Harlow’s should join the cookbooks on the shelf, handy when a particular recipe is called for.