Last week I was honored to be invited to the media pre-view of Smashburger’s new burger and beer pairing menu. As soon as I heard the words burger and beer, I was sold. It didn’t even matter that I’d never heard of Smashburger until I received the email invitation.
For those of you who are as clueless as I was, let me give you the rundown. Smashburger is a quickly growing “fast casual” burger franchise. They are so called because the burgers are made by taking what is essentially a meatball, and smashing it onto their grill top. Think Five Guys, but way less greasy. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Five Guys, but I can only eat there like once a year without physically feeling my cholesterol rise. That’s just me though, no judgement to all of you Five Guys’ lovers.
It would’ve been really easy for Smashburger to team up with some giant AB-Inbev beer producer like Blue Moon, but instead, they chose to partner with local breweries across the country to create a truly unique, local experience. This fact alone got me excited about Smashburger. Here in Cincinnati you can sip on beers by Christian Moerlein Brewing Company, a-made-in-Cincinnati craft beer favorite. You know that the “drink local” concept has taken hold when the marketing genius behind the Dollar Menu and Stuffed Crust Pizza is making local beer and burger pairing menus. This is very good news for us beer and food lovers.
At the event, we got to taste eight different sandwiches (mostly beef burgers) and a couple ounces of the suggested beer pairing. But first, we sampled several of their side options: incredibly tasty rosemary garlic “smashfries,” perfectly crisped sweet potato fries, fried pepper rings (yes, this is a thing. it is awesome), fried pickles, and veggie “frites,” which are fried carrots and green beans. A common theme, but it is a burger joint afterall. They do actually serve some salads, but that was not the focus of the evening. I assure you after eating 8 different quarters of sandwiches PLUS beer and sides, I was planning to eat salad for the rest of the week.
I’m not really into the restaurant review thing, so instead I thought I’d focus more on beer pairings in this context.
The general concept behind pairings is simple: match beer and food so that they compliment one another, bringing out the best in each and enhancing the overall flavor experience. Sometimes pairings can be a bit obvious, for example a classic pairing is spicy food with hoppy beers like India pale ales (IPAs). The collective spiciness and bitterness of the hops is strong enough to compete with the food’s heat. Smashburger founder Tom Ryan, and Moerlein Brewmaster Richard Dube clearly picked up on this idea by pairing their Spicy Baja Black Bean Burger with the Northern Liberties IPA. I found this to be a nice, while expected pairing.
On the other hand you wouldn’t want to pair an IPA with a more delicately flavored dish. This concept was clearly considered when choosing to pair the Classic Smash with the Lager House Helles, a biscuity malt lager with a clean, very mild hop finish. The beer doesn’t overpower the straightforward and classic burger flavor but the touch of hops cuts through the richness of the meat.
Sounds pretty simple, but be careful. At times pairing similarly flavored items works great, and sometimes it’s more like too much of a good thing. An example of this might be pairing a smoky rauchbier with bbq pulled pork. Too much smokiness might be completely overwhelming. A better pairing might be a lightly hopped amber or rye lager.
I think the bottom line with beer pairings is that guidance is useful, but when it comes down to it, every beer is so different, even within the various styles, that the taster is really the best judge of the appropriate pairing. Personally I am a huge fan of pairing more opposite flavors because they tend to accentuate the opposing flavor (sweet and savory, for example). In fact the favorite beer pairing of almost everyone I spoke to at the event was the Mushroom Swiss Burger and Barbarossa Dark Lager. Alone, the burger was quite nice, and the beer is ok, but not typically a beer I would choose because of it’s heavy malt and otherwise simple flavor. But together? Dear lord. This is what beer pairing is all about. The sweet malt of the beer complemented the rich umami flavor of the burger perfectly.
Overall I think that Smashburger and Moerlein did a really good job of crafting these pairings. I am even more excited to see a large company like Smashburger take such interest in promoting local craft beer. The craft beer revolution is surely here to stay, friends. If you want to hear more about the pairing menu, specifically, check out local beer blogger, Hoperatives post by clicking here.
So now I’m curious, what is your favorite beer and food pairing? What works for you, and what doesn’t?