Part 2: Beer and Food Pairing
Can I veer into beer and food? You wrote the book that I refer to almost every day, The Brewmaster’s Table. How did you get interested in beer/food pairing to begin with?
Doing it. From day-one when I started doing professional brewing in 1989, the beer dinner was always one of the main ways that you got your beer out in front of people. And as the whole Food Network thing developed and you had chefs being made into rock stars, it kind of occurred to me that at the time that people didn’t necessarily respect craft beer. They didn’t understand it. But people respected chefs and they respected food. So if you tied craft beer to food and people saw how well the beer worked with the food, the kind of glow of respect that the food got shined onto the beer. I think it’s kind of changing these days in that we don’t always need the food to reflect that glow upon us. The beer has its own thing.
Brewmaster’s Table was written from a point of view of not only information, but also pure utility. I’m having pork chops. I’m doing it with this and this. I’m going to have a soft drink, or I’m going to have wine, maybe some people drink cocktails with dinner, or sake or whatever else. But basically most people are going to have a soft drink of some sort, or wine, or beer. So assuming that your choice is beer, beer has a much broader range of pairing ability. Well, what should I do?
And I’d watch people shop for beer and they’d walk up and down the aisles. They clearly didn’t know what was in the bottles and what to do with it. I think the questions that people have are pretty straight-forward. You know, the number one question asked of sommeliers is not, “What is the loam content of the soil in the Loire valley?” They want to know red or white with chicken? What’s the best wine to have with thanksgiving dinner? People want to know basic things. What is it? What does it taste like? Who made it? Why is it interesting? What do I do with it? And then around that you can build something which is interesting and entertaining.
Over the years I’ve done about 700 or 800 beer dinners in over a dozen countries, everywhere from little neighborhood restaurants to some of the most expensive restaurants in the world. Beer belongs at all these places. And we want to demonstrate that beer is an everyday luxury. It’s something that almost everyone can afford. A decent beer will cost you often less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks. And so really, it sounds grandiose to say it, but every day can be made better than it would have been otherwise.
What makes a great beer/food pairing? What is it about a particular combination that makes you say “wow?”
Well I think beer has a particularly superior ability to do harmony. Wine is largely contrast based. You have steak and you have a glass of cabernet. The flavor of the steak does not actually have anything to do with the flavor of the cabernet. When you’re putting the cabernet with the steak, what you’re essentially doing is putting almost like a fruit sauce on the steak. And that works in a kind of contrasting way. You have caramelization and salt, the flavors that are in the steak, and then you have this opposite flavor from the wine.
In the case of beer, you can do contrast and harmony at the same time. I can bring a roasted flavor or a caramelized flavor that harmonizes with the flavors in the steak, and some bitterness, some sweetness, and some fruitiness to do the contrast part. And that’s what makes what I call the flavor hook, that part of the beer’s flavor that grabs onto part of the food flavor. And so often with the best pairings, the beer is interacting with the food in two or three different ways. It’s doing contrast, and harmony, and various accentuations. You definitely are looking for 1 + 1 = 3. 1 + 1 = 2 is easy. It’s really about getting to that third thing where something is greater than the sum of the parts.
Good beer in general is becoming more and more accepted and popular. The concept of beer and food pairing is becoming accepted. Or to take it even further, beer and food pairing is now being thought about…
What’s happening is that it’s mainstreaming. It’s becoming mainstream. If you looked at 2011’s biggest trends in national restaurant news you will see beer and food pairing. And so something which sounded exotic 10 or 15 years ago is becoming routine. And that’s something that I have been saying. Craft beer is not a trend or a fad, it’s simply a return to normality. We’re like one-third or one-quarter of the way to getting back the level of variety that we used to have going back a hundred years and that we’ve largely forgotten about. We had thousands of breweries and we brewed every kind of beer in the world. And now we’re just kind of regaining all of that stuff. We used to have a fascinating food culture that brought in everybody’s immigrant roots. That kind of got paved over in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Everybody said, “Okay, I want to be an American. I’m going to eat meat and potatoes.” And now everything re-differentiates. You see that in what’s happening in the supermarket. You go to Whole Foods and there’s a whole wall of olive oils. There used to be one olive oil or two olive oils. It’s like everything. As things that used to seem exotic become normal it’s a good thing for everybody. There’s more choice. Now, more choice also means people get waylaid or confused. It’s that thing where you walk in and there are a thousand things to choose from. Well which one do you choose? A little bit of information gives somebody the ability to go in and say, “Okay, I’d like to have that.” Otherwise you’re just looking at a wall of stuff.
That’s what happens to me when I go into the beer store.
At least you’re coming at it from the point that you know almost too much. You look at it and you can see how each one of these might be fun. That’s the other hard thing.
What about pairing beer and cheese?
The tricky thing about beer and cheese tastings is that the cheese in a moving target. You say stilton or something like that, but there’s a pretty wide range of what that cheese might be like. So any kind of information you can get on what kind of condition the cheese is likely to be in that day is helpful. Or if you know that a particular place likes to push their cheeses all the way out to their ripest point or you know that they tend to serve their cheeses fairly young, you can work with that to figure out how your pairing is likely to go.
Also, the funkier they get the harder it can be. So that part is always tricky. I try to ask as many questions as I can and also get my samples as close to the actual date, like if I can get my samples two days before we’re going to do the actual tasting. And I ask if it’s coming from the same wheel and the same place etc. That’s your best shot, because there’s only so much that’s going to change in a couple of days. But if you taste it three weeks beforehand or a month beforehand, well…
And I have my go-to pairings that, when I don’t have information in advance, I know a lot of cheeses pretty well so I can say, “These are the five sets we’re going to start with.” And I try to mix the various types. I would like one goat, at least one sheep, one washed-rind, one blue, and one cooked, firm cheese – cheddar type or usually a gruyere. That’s six. That gives you an opportunity to talk about the differences in milks and how the beers are interacting. Say with a saison or a Belgian witbier, how the beer interacts with the tangy quality that goat cheeses have. So I have favorite pairings when it comes to that.
And there are cheeses that I know are likely to be available even though they are good artisanally-made cheeses. For example, you have Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog. You know you can find it in a good cheese shop. You know you can get it even at Costco sometimes. So a person that has a Whole Foods somewhere near them is going to be able to get it. Then if we need to get more esoteric we can. You can teach people about what is wash-rind cheese. Now, as you have the flourishing of beers with Brett character, you know wash-rind cheeses go great with Brett. So you get a chance to tell these tales together.
When I’m doing events I like to help people figure out what kind of beer they gravitate towards. I focus it around ingredients, malt, hops, yeast. How do you approach this?
I do it somewhat differently in that kind of tasting. Like the cheese, I tend to cover ranges of flavor. I want you to understand the two main kinds of wheat beer, because I think they have great utility. You can drink them with so many different things. I want you to understand pale ales and IPAs. Bitterness. I want you to understand caramelization, roast, yeast character, usually represented by some of the Belgian beers where you have a lot of yeast character. I like to serve something with some vintage character.
So a typical beginners tasting might start off with a Belgian wheat beer, then go to weissbier. Then do a real pilsner and start talking about lagers. An IPA. Some sort of Belgian Abbey ale. Maybe a stout or imperial stout. And then a barleywine. Hopefully in there, if we have room to do it, one lambic so that we can show that end of things. Other variants that you can throw in there are like a saison, etc.
I can say that the one thing I have learned over the years, which should not have been a surprise, but was a big surprise, is never talk down to anybody. I can’t tell you how many times I have served Black Chocolate Stout, a big 10.2% imperial stout, to the little old lady, she’s 82 years old, she’s got a blue rinse, and she’s tasting it and saying, “Well I like this one the most. I’ve been looking for a beer like this for a long time.” And I’m like, “Wait, you have been looking for a beer like this? A 55 IBU, black, blow-your-head-off imperial stout. This is what you’re really into?” She’s like, “I don’t usually drink beer very much. I don’t really like beer. But this stuff is awesome.”
I came to realize that just because somebody came in saying that they don’t even like beer or that they’re a Coors Light drinker, or whatever else, doesn’t mean that you can’t have them walking out of there loving Schlenkerla Rauchbier. You have no idea what they are going to like, and neither do they. Your job when you are doing a tasting is to show them. “Here it comes. This is what you are about to taste. Get ready. And now we’re going to talk about the culture and the flavor and whatever else. And if that one is not for you, great.” But I don’t make the mistake any more of not putting stuff in front of people because I think they can’t handle it. Basically what you find out is that almost everybody can handle almost everything as long as you tell them what they are about to taste. My goal is that I want to go all the way there in a couple of hours. And maybe the end of the tasting will be a J.W. Lees Harvest Ale from 2005. My goal for the tasting is that I want to completely blow your mind. I want you to walk out of the room dazed and confused if you have never really come to beer before, and to walk out saying correctly, “I’ve been missing something. I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
Here’s the way I like to put it. Every enthusiasm you have, at some point there was a single moment of introduction. It might have been that you love baseball and your uncle took you to your first baseball game. You love jazz because somebody played you your first Miles Davis record. In that one moment, a little door opens up. On the other side of that door is a better life. And that’s a real thing. It’s an absolutely real thing. You will meet those people ten years later and they will tell you what you did for them. “That one day, in two hours, you changed my life.” And that is absolutely real. And that is the thing that we are here to bring to people. My job is to be the guy that opens that door up. And you’ve got to walk through it. That’s a great thing to be able to do. It may not be rocket science or brain surgery. But you know what? It’s at least as important. You’re going to make peoples’ lives better every day. If they love jazz, they can listen to jazz every day for the rest of their live. But if nobody every plays them the record, guess what. You’re not going to hear it. And the rest of your life you don’t get any of that. You lose that. People think we’re just going out slinging beer, but no, it isn’t that. You see how happy it makes people to have enthusiasms for things. To enjoy dinner every day a little bit more, hell, what else do you want?