Wine is delightful, but beer can be even easier and more fun to pair with food.
This article first appeared in the 1 April 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
At restaurant dante, a modern-Italian hot spot in Boston, wine steward Chas Boynton's job is recommending the best beverage pairing for every dish. Sometimes, making the optimal match means passing up the restaurant's rich wine list in favor of a frosty brew.
"Some of our staples go best with beer," says Boynton, who often complements Chef Dante de Magistris' signature lombatello (grilled hanger steak and herbed fries) with a rich, malty stout rather than the expected glass of red.
"The steak is marinated in soy and ginger, so to contrast the saltiness of the soy sauce and the fries, I like to go with something richer for that classic combination of salty and sweet," he explains. "I don't like artificially enhanced sweet beers, so I go with a stout, because the enhanced malted nature gives you a very sweet core."
Enthusiast advocates such as Boynton are just one point of evidence in the growing case for beer as a respected dining companion. Craft brews' soaring status as one of the hottest growth segments on the adult beverage side is another, exposing consumers to diverse, nuanced flavor profiles that provide versatile pairing options.
Living in Perfect Harmony
One obvious reason behind rising interest in beer pairings is beer's approachability, says Todd Rushing, operating partner at Atlanta's Concentrics Restaurants.
"Getting customers to taste new things and ask about pairings is much easier to do with beer than wine because people have a broader range of understanding about beer," he says.
Matching food with just the right brew is an emphasis at Concentrics' beer-focused concepts-the recently opened gastropub TAP and upscale sports bar STATS-so when servers learn about menu items, they also learn a few appropriate pairings to suggest to diners.
Beer pairings also show up at the group's fine-dining restaurants. Rushing's recommendations at French restaurant Trois include a spicy, fruity, golden ale to accompany King salmon with pomme mousseline; at contemporary-American TWO urban licks, he suggests a creamy, lightly nutty brown ale to match braised pork shoulder with macaroni and cheese.
Rushing advises searching for complementary flavors and aromas-think citrusy, floral, malty, smoky, sweet-but also keeping in mind that many flavor nuances can exist within such broader beer categories as wheat beers, pale ales and porters.
"The creaminess of a raw oyster and a very malty, creamy stout is a great pairing, but that wouldn't work with a stout that tastes like drinking black, French-roast espresso. I'd have that one with a piece of chocolate cake, because you'll find nuances of chocolate in that beer," Rushing says.
Meanwhile, he adds, a wheat beer with light lemon and banana notes is a natural fit to play off tropical flavors such as mango and papaya, while a brew with more of a cherry characteristic would work well with spring duck salad tossed with fresh cherries.
Rules of Engagement
Pizza with beer is a long-celebrated marriage-so much so that Pizzeria Paradiso in Washington, D.C., opened a beer-focused concept called Birreria Paradiso downstairs from its street-level Georgetown location. The restaurants regularly host events that promote beer's compatibility with pizza and other foods.
This month, for example, they'll team up with a well-known creamery to present a five-course small-plates dinner matching 10 cheeses with seven international beers. Beer-pairing dinners are another popular feature.
For one recent event, bar manager Greg Jasgur chose bitter Belgian strong ale to counter the fatty, salty profile of an antipasto plate; at another, he called on sweet, extra-hoppy Indian pale ale to complement rustic herb-and-bacon pizza.
"The flavors of beer can be incredibly different from one another," he says. "You can go from light, very sweet beer to something very dry and bitter to something incredibly sour and very roasted. There's a lot more you can do with beer, and that translates into more viable pairing options for food."
Todd Rushing of Concentrics Restaurants in Atlanta, Greg Jasgur of Pizzeria Paradiso in Washington, D.C., and Chas Boyton at restaurant dante in Boston share the rationale behind some of their favorite beer-and-food pairings.
- Dried cherry-pesto pizza and imperial stout: "The basil and Parmesan from the pesto highlighted the dryness of the stout, while the flavor of the cherries mixed with the roasted notes of the beer, creating a wonderful dish." - Greg Jasgur
- Blueberry crostada and cinnamon gelato with raspberry lambic: "I've always loved how blueberries and raspberries work together. The crostada also has a very yeasty, doughy element, and the carbonation from the beer really cuts through that." - Chas Boyton
- Barbecued pork ribs with Irish stout: "The ribs are wood-grilled, giving them a great smokiness and caramelization from the fire, which allows the beer to show its toasted-malt characteristicis. The ribs also have heat from the spices, and the stout soothes the palate from that heat." - Todd Rushing.
- Strawberry-goat-cheese tiramisu with Saison pale ale: "The earthy flavor of the cheese paired nicley with the dry, barnyard notes of the Saison. The strawberries, which we put at the bottom of the dish, only provided a hint of fruit flavor. This highlighted the fruit notes that pervade the yeasty head of the beer." - Greg Jasgur