I was recently approached by Dan Higgins, a friend and excellent local chef, to host a beer pairing dinner. I figured it was a great opportunity to put into practice all of the beer pairing studying I did for the Certified Cicerone® exam. Plus, it’s hard to say no to someone who says, “how about I come to your house and make a six course dinner and you pair beers with it.”
Before I start, I have to apologize in advance for the hunger and thirst that this article will cause you. It was probably one of, if not THE, best meals I’ve ever eaten. Hopefully it will help you plan the best meal of your life too.
You don’t need a real chef to do this at home, just a tasty menu plan, some basic pairing guidelines, lots of glassware, and plenty of water. If you’re doing 4 oz pours like we did, the best tasting glasses are white wine glasses – they are the perfect size, large enough that you can still stick your nose in there and smell all the beer aroma. This is very important since so much of our perception and actual taste of beer comes from the aroma. We ended up using a smattering of different wine glasses and happened to have some 4 oz tasting glasses, so used those as well.
The food doesn’t have to be fancy at all, but consider that lighter foods, and thus lighter beers, are better at the beginning of the meal. Even if you’re not 100% sure of every single flavor (for example if you’re doing a potluck) at the bare minimum ask your guests what the flavors of their dish will be. If someone tells you they are bringing “shrimp,” that isn’t all that helpful. If you know the shrimp has a cilantro, garlic, and lime marinade and is meant to go on skewers for the grill, now you’re in business. Generally shrimp has a pretty mild flavor which pairs well with a lighter beer such as pilsner or hefeweizen, but with the cilantro, garlic and lime plus the smoky flavor from the grill, you’ll need something a bit bold to stand up to it. You could do a nice American pale ale with citrusy cascade hops, for example. This would complement the citrus flavors in the lime marinade and stand up to the smoky grill flavor nicely.
The concept is to match intensity so the beer or food isn’t overpowered but complemented. This is one of a zillion examples, so if this is all new to you, don’t panic. A lot of beer pairings are pretty common sense.
Let me walk you through my thought process when planning for this particular dinner. Luckily, Dan sent the basic menu flavors a few weeks in advance so I had plenty of time for thinking.
Course #1: Garlic hummus with cucumbers:
To start the meal, I wanted to go very light and refreshing. Since we were waiting for a friend to arrive, I knew we’d all want a large glass of something sessionable to sip on as we waited for the meal to be complete.
I opted to make a radler, often called a shandy, which is a mixture of beer and citrusy soda or lemonade. To balance the garlic (and often lemony) flavor of freshly made hummus, I opted to use a mixture of homemade lemonade that I made with fresh lemons and simple syrup. For the beer mixer, I decided on Brooklyn Brewery’s Sorachi Ace, a lovely, single hop dry saison that’s named after the Sorachi Ace hops it’s brewed with. Sorachi Ace is a newer hop introduced by the Japanese. It’s a mash-up of the British “Brewer’s Gold” and the Czech “Saaz” hops. It has spicy lemony characteristics which made me think it would be a perfect fit for this off the beaten path radler.
The pairing turned out excellent. The radler was extremely refreshing and light. The lemon paired well with the bitter bite from the garlic and helped to cleanse the palate after each bite. I’m glad I opted for a slightly hoppier beer as a mixer with the lemonade – it worked well to counterbalance the garlic flavor.
Course #2: Frisée salad with sweetbreads, goat cheese, and grapefruit bitters:
I decided to focus on the goat cheese and grapefruit flavors of this offering since I wasn’t sure how the sweetbreads would be prepared. I chose to pair this course with our very own house Hefeweizen, which we brewed in a very traditional way: 75% wheat, 25% pilsner malt, a little bit of noble hops at the beginning of the boil and fermented with a Bavarian wheat yeast. Simple and delicious.
I had a notion that the fruity yeast and sweet wheat flavor of this beer would balance well with the tangy goat cheese and grapefruit, and I was right. The sweet and slightly sour grapefruit gastrique was a nice counterpoint and at the same time complemented the lemony semi-dry Hef. Fresh goat cheese and Hefeweizen is a classic, so I knew I couldn’t be too far off with this one. Ultimately the crispy sweetbreads, which are the thymus gland of lamb or calf – mmm delicious organ meats, were a great match for the Hef as well. The slightly acidic nature and sweet carbonation acts as a perfect “cleanser” for the fried food or “scrubbing bubbles” as Garret Oliver says in his fantastic book The Brewmaster’s Table. It is a must read for lovers of beer and food.
Course #3: pork, chorizo corn bread, cilantro, onion, and pickled chilies:
From the description of this course I knew that I would need a beer bold enough to stand up to all those flavors. I opted for my good friend, IPA. More specifically, one of my favorite IPA’s of all time: Fat Head’s Head Hunter. This big IPA (7.5% ABV) is a bold and citrusy West coast IPA, dry hopped for extra aroma. To be clear, when you pair an IPA with a spicy dish, the spice will appear increased.
If you are not a spicy food fan, I would NOT pair a big bold IPA with your already spicy meal. I love spicy, so it works for me. Luckily, this dish wasn’t actually so much spicy as it was full of aggressive flavors. There was a cumin crema with this dish that helped cool the heat, but also worked fantastically with the fruity spiciness of the IPA. The higher alcohol cut right through the fat from the chorizo in the cornbread and worked wonderfully with the tender, yet chewy pork.
This was one of my favorite pairings of the evening. One of our guests said that generally, the beer would be too overpowering for her, but with this meal, it was perfect. That, my friends, is what you are aiming for with a good beer and food pairing.
Course #4: Seared flank steak, caramelized Brussel sprouts, and purée of celeriac:
Halfway through the meal and I was already starting to get full but the food was so tasty I couldn’t stoppppp. Oy #firstworldproblems.
I decided right away that I wanted to pair this dish with a nice, well balanced stout. Luckily, I had on hand our own Blackberry Belgian Stout, plus a bomber of our friend Sean’s Cherry Belgian Stout. We brewed the beers together on his fabulous Electric Brewery, then split the batch and added different fruit to each during secondary fermentation. With the rich meat and slightly bitter caramelized Brussels I wanted to counterbalance with a little sweetness and funk from the Belgian yeast with it’s blackberry and tart cherry friends. The cherry version ended up being much more tart and prominent but still lovely, while the blackberry was more subtle with just a hint of fruit, letting the roasty malt and yeast shine through.
It was fun to compare the success of each beer as a pairing, though serving two beers per course (which I considered) would’ve been too much. I think ultimately we liked the more subtle blackberry for the pairing. The cherry tasted a little too tart and took away from the meat, where the blackberry had just enough fruitiness to be a nice counterpoint.
Course #5: Duck, sour pickled carrot, bleu cheese, and shiitake:
With the duck, I wanted to pair a beer with enough carbonation and acid to cut through the rich fattiness. I chose Jolly Pumpkin Oro de Calabaza a first class Belgian Tripel which is wild fermented and aged in oak, then bottle conditioned. This beer is the first sour beer I ever liked because it isn’t too overpowering – you can still taste the flavors of Belgian Tripel, it’s crisp, with a little clovey spiciness, and citrusy zip.
The funky yeast paired well with the bleu cheese sauce, accentuating the barnyardy goodness while cutting through the tongue coating creaminess. As suspected, the carbonation and zip from the wild yeasts was a nice counterpoint to the rich seared duck breast. Overall, a successful pairing.
And finally, dessert, course #6: bitter chocolate, raspberry purée, and caramel
For the final course, I chose one of my favorite beers of all time: Pretty Things’ Baby Tree, a phenomenal Belgian quadruple style beer. You may remember me extolling the virtues of Pretty Things, a gypsy brewery from my home state of Massachusetts, and losing my mind when I found out you can now find it at the Party Source in nearby Kentucky. I love this beer.
A good Belgian Quadrupel style beer should be very complex: plummy, a little earthy, with hints of caramel in the sweet malt. The beer shouldn’t be too cloyingly sweet, but balanced and lovely. I chose it for it’s complexity and stronger alcohol content which is typically required of a dessert pairing and served it in our very large red wine glasses so you could really smell and taste all that was going on in this beer. Plus the presentation was out of this world.
This particular quad is 9% ABV which worked beautifully to contrast the rich chocolate cake and caramel, while the plummy fruit notes of the beer accentuated the raspberry coulis. Despite that my husband and I have drank this beer countless times, this pairing offered a whole new view of the beer for us. Everyone at the table agreed that this was an excellent pairing, perhaps the best of the night. I now can’t imagine this beer had any other way. Sweet success!
I warned you that this post would cause sever hunger and thirst, for which I really am sorry. I could go on, and on, and on about beer and food but I won’t do that to you. If you want to learn more about this art form, I’d highly recommend Garret Oliver’s book, which I mentioned before, and also Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beerwhich has a nice section on beer and food pairings.
Minus some basic principles, there really is no wrong way to go about pairing beer and food – as long as you’re drinking and eating quality stuff, you pretty much win every time.