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Food Pairing Moves On

The beer and food pairing concept has come a long way.

Food and beer pairingWhen Michael Jackson broached the subject in his 1993 opus The Beer Companion, it seemed almost revolutionary.

There were still historic pockets of beer cuisine around the world – in Belgium or Germany, for instance, where the tradition of eating and drinking local produce had developed some natural table partnerships – but for most people, especially drinkers who had grown used to – at best – a packet of crisps and a soggy pie as company for their best bitter, it proved to be an eyeopener.

Thanks to the work of writers like Susan Nowak, Lucy Saunders and Garrett Oliver, the revived concept took root and passed into the realm of fine dining as some high-end restaurants embraced the idea. And the development continues.

American Champion

The Brewers Association (BA) in the US has long championed the cause, recognising that shooting beer into the rarefied atmosphere that surrounds gourmet dining can only reinforce its image as a product to be savoured and not just swilled.

The BA remains at the forefront of the movement. It has recently updated and expanded its comprehensive Beer & Food Course, which is free for the public, and particularly restaurateurs, to download and it also takes the beer and food show on the road.

It hosts an annual beer and food event called Savor in Washington, DC, and is always keen to partner with top chefs to showcase the joys of beer on the table, including here in the UK.

The most recent exercise took place in London, in the perhaps challenging, wine-oriented environment of the Sager + Wilde restaurant in rapidly ‘gentrifying’ Bethnal Green.

Hosted by Adam Dulye, the Brewers Association’s own executive chef, the evening promised, on this occasion, to rethink the beer-and-food pairing concept.

Instead of introducing beers that increase in strength and intensity as the menu evolves, this time everything would be thrown in the air, meaning that there could be big beers early on in the meal and something delicate to close.

To prove a point, Adam opened up with a couple of robust IPAs from California as aperitifs. Track 7’s Panic and Sierra Nevada’s Tropical Torpedo certainly switched on the palate and, despite the buoyant fruit flavours, both were sufficiently dry in the finish to set you up for the first course.

This was a wonderfully refreshing grilled peach salad, constructed with dressed leaves and chopped roasted hazelnuts. To pair with this, Adam selected two US pilsners.

Coronado’s Seacoast Pilsner from California and Hardywood’s Pils from Virginia (the latter now available in the UK) ran seamlessly alongside the delicate salad, trading matching herb flavours and providing a cleanness and crispness to cut through the slightly oily dressing.

My favourite pairing of the evening came next, a creamy gazpacho with chilli and crab. The beer selection was inspired – two saisons that really hit the spot.

Great Divide’s Colette from Denver offered a bittersweet, fruity taste that softened the heat in the chilli nicely. Pfreim Saison from Oregon came in a small corked bottle and was drier and more spicy. Its brightness opened up the spicing of the soup a little more and proved to be a better handler of the crab, so it left less of a ‘fishy’ taste.

The following pasta course was chosen to showcase umami – that savoury perception that has come to be accepted as the fifth taste sensation. Thrown in with salty, garlicky tagliarini were slices of truffle and thrown down as a challenge were two more IPAs.

The first Singapore IPA from Saugatuck in Michigan, is an earthy, fairly thick beer with deep bitter citrus flavours.

The second, Big Swell IPA from Maui in Hawaii, is a touch lighter, with lots of grapefruit and tropical fruit. For me, it worked better, being crisper and not overpowering the truffle, which the Saugatuck beer tended to do.

Technical and Scientific

At various points during the dinner, Adam returned to lead the tasting, often expanding into rather technical and scientific areas to illustrate the aim of each pairing.

Food and beer pairingWhen it came to the main course, he presented a different challenge. Just one beer was placed on the table to run alongside Middle White pork, served with fennel and baby turnips.

That beer was Mélange à Trois from Nebraska Brewing, a Chardonnay-barrel-aged Belgian blonde ale.

One of my all-time favourite beers comes from Nebraska – the brilliantly delicate Apricot au Poivre Saison.

Mélange à Trois was also beautiful but I didn’t think it quite did itself, or the food, justice here, not particularly harmonising with the delicately smoked pork and adding little to the creamy turnips, apart from cleansing carbonation.

But that’s what’s great about this sort of event: even when the pairings are not stellar, you still have a combination that works as well as most wines.

Wrapping things up for the evening was a zesty lemon tart, designed – along with its paired beers – to provide a palate-cleansing conclusion and to challenge the perception that beer dinners have to end with a rich stout or a big, thunderbolt barley wine.

The two beers selected for dessert were Optimal Wit from Port City Brewing in Virginia and Blond Cougar from Wormtown in Massachusetts. Adam’s intention was to go beyond the obvious, and this certainly did that, but again it didn’t quite come together for me: the sweetness and the sharpness of the lemon in the pudding were just too strong, overpowering any matching characteristics in the beers.

Overall, this was the most thought-provoking beer dinner I’ve covered for a while. I loved the way that previous conventions went out of the window and, as always, the beers were terrific.

Even for an experienced beer and food pairer like me, it opened the eyes to what is possible and shows that the whole concept is moving onto another level.

It’s been ten years since the beer world lost Michael Jackson. I’m sure he would have been delighted that a part of his mission to educate, inform and entertain continues apace.

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