Chef + Brewer = Elevated Beer + Food Pairings

Authored by Sean Z. Paxton. Reprinted with permission. Jan/Feb 2014 The New Brewer

Food is a culmination of different ingredients (fruit, vegetables, dairy, proteins, herbs, and spices) mixed with acid, fat, or liquid, served raw or cooked in liquid, or over fire, heat, or smoke. The skillful manipulation of these ingredients can completely change the food and create a unique dish. It’s the chef’s knowledge and training that transforms these ingredients into a flavorful dish for consumption.

Similarly, a brewer mixes different grains in water that may be treated with minerals that, with the help of the enzymes from the husk of the grain, transform the starches into sugars. After hop additions and boiling, and the inclusion of herbs, spices, or other specialty ingredients, the liquid becomes a highly fermentable wort. Then yeast is added and CO2 and alcohol are created. How these ingredients are manipulated comes from the brewmaster’s skill that fills our glass with a unique brew.

Looking at these similarities between beer and food is important, as we enjoy, indulge, and nourish our bodies and souls. This article will examine the fundamental similarities between the chef and brewer, and the use of ingredients and strategies that can act as a canvas for elevated food and beer pairings at any pub, brewpub, gastropub, or restaurant.

Dissecting Ingredients

Malt is an important element in a beer. A maltster could be considered a gardener in the beer world. The knowledge and experience of a maltster can add many different nuances to this simple ingredient, transforming its base flavor profile. Base malts can have a honey, grainy, cracker, and/or grape nut sweetness. These elemental flavors are great building blocks for a chef to work with to design a recipe or dish. Using this understanding of an ingredient and adopting it like a seasoning can enhance base beer flavors that act like an anchor or foundational starting point with a food and beer pairing.

The malt can be further enhanced by the kilning process, as distinctive temperatures combined with different lengths of time caramelize the sugars in different ways, creating unique essences that are very similar to how particular vegetables, starches, and protein flavors are transformed by the Maillard reaction during cooking. This reaction between reducing sugars and amino acids with the addition of heat can mimic flavors of biscuit, toast, and breadiness found in Vienna and Munich malts. Crystal malts highlight flavors of different degrees of caramel and toffee. These complementary flavors can be found in caramelized onions, shallots, leeks, and even roasted garlic. The thoughtful use of these cooking methods highlighting flavors found in these malts can build a bridge between beer and food flavors that add structure and complexity to a pairing.

Some malts are smoked in beech, cherry, oak, or peat moss. This extra perfume is very akin, if not identical, to some types of barbecue, reminiscent of the days of cooking over a wood fire. The essence of smoke in the grain creates flavor characteristics similar to a long grilling and/or smoking method of cooking protein, constructing extra layers of richness that a chef can further manipulate, creating a unique dish for a diner to enjoy.

Malt can also be kilned very similarly to how coffee is roasted to impart richer, dark flavors such as roast, coffee, cocoa, chocolate, espresso, and ash. These flavors can range from lightly earthy to astringent depending upon the percentages used in the brew and how the brewer chooses to express these distinct flavors.

Other starches are available to be included in the brewing process. Amaranth, buckwheat, faro, kamut, oats, quinoa, rice, rye, sorghum, spelt, teff, and wheat can be boiled in a cereal mash and/or malted to offer their sugars for the yeast to ferment. Each grain adds its own unique savory, sweet, or nutty component to the finished beer while also enriching the mouthfeel and texture. These same grains can become a starch substitute for mashed potatoes or rice on a plate, adding a creative addition of flavor and texture for the guest, further melding the similarities between brewing and cooking.

This same approach of dissecting the essence of malt should be applied to all aspects of a beer. Take time to understand the different varieties of hops and the resulting flavors of herbs (parsley, oregano, thyme, bay leaf, savory, basil), citrus (tangerine, orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime), tropical fruit (mango, passion fruit, pineapple, lychee), or a spicy, dank, green vegetal aroma and/or flavor. It is important to interpret the amount of hops being used in a beer by identifying the IBUs. Higher IBUs in a beer (and style) will result in a heavier bitterness that will need to have balance; use sweet, salt, or sour to counteract this bitterness. This breakdown of elementary flavor vocabulary is critical for interpreting what a guest will experience. Esters (fruity, banana, spice) and phenols (clove, cinnamon) are flavor by-products from the yeast. These attributes can be mimicked by the chef, using these ingredients in a dish to resonate these similarities.

5 Win/Win Pairings

These five beer and food pairings bring out more flavors than what each individual element has to offer.

  1. Oysters paired with stout. In the wine world, champagne is used to add a bright element to bounce off salinity. With beer, the roast, astringent flavors of a stout mix with the salty, briny oyster and bring out a creamy texture to the bi-valve. This is very similar to mixing a pinch of salt into the ground beans when brewing a cup of coffee; the salt reduces the bitterness of the coffee.
  2. Point Reyes Original Blue cheese paired with Russian River Temptation. This sour ale has a unique reaction with the penicillin and ammonia aroma and flavor of blue cheese. These distinctive qualities disappear from the cheese, as if the beer erases them. This opens up the taste buds to experience the fat from the milk. The texture almost melts onto the tongue, like whipped Chantilly cream, intensifying the Chardonnay and barrel characteristics of the beer. This pairing is a 1+1=3.
  3. Foie gras butter poached sea scallops with candied kumquat, pea shoots, and Delirium Tremens sabayon paired with Scaldis. I created this dish for the Toronado Belgian Beer Dinner. The rich scallop is perfectly cooked in the drippings of seared fatted duck livers, sitting on candied wheels of kumquats and topped with lightly sautéed pea shoots. The flavors marry with the Belgian golden strong and bring out the orange, candied citrus flavor, while showcasing the hops with the pea shoots and the esters in the beer with the sabayon sauce.
  4. Banana cream pie paired with hefeweizen. The ester and phenolic flavors derived from the yeast add layers of complexity to a classic banana cream pie. The soft notes of vanilla in the custard filling are mimicked in the wheat malt used in the grist of the beer, while the rich/fatty ripe bananas mix with the yeasty component and add intensity along with body.
  5. Porcini mushrooms paired with English porter. The umami or fifth flavor (after sour, sweet, salty, and bitter) from the forest mushroom enhances the roasty, earthy flavors of this dark ale style. This combination, whether in a stew with steak, as a gravy served over roasted fowl, or as a stuffing in an empanada, adds depth to the pairing by bringing out the best of each element, while contributing a special richness and complexity that fills in the flavor gaps.

Synergy Between Chef and Brewer

When looking to achieve a brewpub menu that will complement the beers on tap, it is important for the chef to sit down with the brewer and discuss the ingredients and resulting flavors that the malts, hops, and yeast add to the beer’s profile. How beer and food are expressed together for a pairing with the right amount of finesse generates a synergy between the chef and brewer and is critical to advancing beer cuisine.

Integrating a Cicerone® or beverage director into the process can be a key to advancing food and beer pairing in any brewpub. Creating a strategy for the staff to understand the pairing and why and how the offering is designed is another level of service that is often not fully utilized. Whether the menu is expressing the season’s bounty, is focused on an international cuisine, or highlights flavor, the trick is to design a pairing that will wow the dinner guest. The approach of designing the menu from the perspective of beer flavors can support the ultimate goal of creating a menu that incorporates sophisticated pairings that contrast and complement each dish, showcasing the establishment’s dedication to up the ante and support the diner in understanding a well-engineered food and beer pairing. However, it is important to understand that this is a complex task and not as easy as it sounds. It takes more than simply dissecting a beer’s flavor profile; it involves taking the time to reflect on the complexity of flavors and best processes for coaxing out specific flavor attributes that resonate when beer and food are combined.

It is important to understand all the different elements of each beer style. The beer’s seasonality, strength/intensity, hop bitterness, alcohol level, and flavor profile are important in the proper placement on a menu. For a multi-course meal, starting with lighter flavors (and/or alcohol level) and building the intensity of each style of beer is critical to respect the beer and its identity. If this process is not respected, the beer can be lost or perceived as an afterthought. Looking at the beer style country of origin and using that as an inspiration for the dish or menu offering is a helpful start. Looking at the similarities of different cuisines and how they will interact with the course before and after is another tactic that ensures that the diner won’t be filled with so many different flavors and ingredients that they wear out their palate by the end of the meal.

Conversely, with the construction of a menu that is too singularly focused on one ingredient or flavor, the diner is left bored. The following exemplifies this point:

Consider a menu that celebrates the peach season, offering peaches in all five courses. By the third course, the diner is fatigued by the regurgitation of the same flavor profile with no new excitement or sense of adventure so that the palate became bored and the offerings lost the nuance that made the peach special. Sweet after sweet becomes repetitious on the palate. If the chef had thought about other similar flavors that a peach processes, the menu could have been salvaged. Think about a peach, its sweetness, the juice, the flesh, the skin; all different textures and flavors. Yet inside the pit lies a key to another element that can play up the complementary flavors of a peach, as the almond-shaped seed in the center of the stone processes the flavoring that becomes amaretto liquor. Toasted almond would add texture and reinforce an essence that plays tribute to the stone fruit. It’s the attention to these details that creates success in beer and food pairing. Having another complementary flavor to use as a springboard adds intrigue to the composition of a menu.

Designing a menu that can play on both the savory and sweet balance is also important, particularly with beer’s inherent bitterness from hops. The chef’s ability to walk the fine line of balance, while simultaneously using different seasonings, can make or break the success of the overall menu.

Attention to Detail

Not every diner is trained to be a beer judge. Understanding off-flavors in beer is yet another element to be sensitive to, as these flavors are considered to be flaws in most beer styles. Diacetyl can taste like buttered popcorn, butterscotch, or artificial butter substitute and can have a resulting slick residue mouthfeel that coats the palate and is very undesirable. If a beer tastes of cooked cabbage or creamed corn, it could be dimethyl sulfide (DMS). Acetaldehyde tastes of green apple or ripe pear. To make it a touch confusing, some beers are made with apples or corn and these brews are not considered flawed.

These off-flavors are present in most beers, but at low enough levels that are under most people’s detection. The amount of these flavors can vary from parts per million to billion, depending on what levels are present in the beer and the sensitivity of a person’s palate to these flavors. If these flavors are used as a sauce or side dish, the flavor threshold of a diner’s palate can highlight these off-flavors and ultimately disrespect the beer. Leaving these ingredients or flavors out of a menu can greatly increase the respect of the beer and the eventual success of a pairing.

Many brewpubs have flagship beers that are regularly featured. This is a ripe opportunity for the chef and brewer to work together to develop beer pairings with menu items, giving the customer a guide to a better beer and food pairing. This addition to a standard menu can result in an increase in sales, as the server can offer half pours with each course, safely increasing the beverage tab while giving the guest an enhanced experience. Another option is to offer a flight of beers, whether it is taster glasses or half pint pours that can be ordered with a menu item to expand on the compare/contrast pairing ideals, creating a heightened food and beer experience for the guest.

Training servers to understand beer profiles and pairing options can set the restaurant apart from other establishments that just offer good to great beer. Many times a restaurant will have a wonderful menu and a great beer list, but the concept that these two elements are going to be combined to enhance each bite seems to be missing. This small attention to detail can create a unique experience that will educate the diner, providing them with something extra that they are bound to share with friends.

The way in which the beer is served can also be a distinguishing element to the identity of the pub or restaurant. The lower the temperature of the beer when served (as low as 34° F), the more numb our palates become. The nuance to this detail is important, as the beers flavor can be hidden or lost, particularly if the course is only a few bites and the customer quickly drinks the small pour. Glassware is equally important. Thought should be given to not only the type of glass used to serve the style of beer, but also to how it is washed and rinsed, ensuring that no cleaning solution is left behind that can taint the brew.

Taking the time to examine the small details of how a beer is crafted, how a menu is developed, or how an ingredient or flavor is showcased will refine how a beer and food pairing is experienced. This attention to detail can elevate the customers’ participation and experience of the relationship between food and beer. By refining what we do and how we present it to our guests, we can create new flavor experiences that will generate memories, bringing customers back for more.