Back when we thought of ‘wine’ as ‘red’ and ‘white,’ you had white with fish ‘ any white, any fish ‘ and you had red with meat or Italian. When you had French food, you had French wine. Now people take time to think about picking a particular wine for a particular meal ‘ or take the time to ask you and your staff for advice ‘ because they’ve learned about the tremendous diversity of palate wine offers for the enjoyment, the enhancement of food.
Guess what? Most people still don’t know that beer has that same breadth of diversity, the same ability to enhance a meal. For them, beer is something you have with pretzels, pizza, picnics and pasta, which is all well and good. But for any fare beyond that, they’ll grab their usual and head for the register, unaware that they could be getting a much better experience with a different beer.
Helping your customers learn about this whole new area of taste enrichment won’t just give you a one-time up-sell, a buck or two added to the day’s receipts. That’s a nice little bump, but what you’ll really be doing is adding to your perceived value. You’re going to be the source of new ideas that make their meals better, that impress their friends, that they will pass on to others. That’s not just up-sell, that’s repeat up-sell and new customers. So set the table and get ready for business.
Making It Up
Beer has three components that come together to create flavors and aromas: malt, hops and yeast (water, assuming it’s fresh and clean to begin with, has a relatively minor effect on the final flavor). These may seem as simple as sweet grain, bitter flowers, and an alcohol-producing engine, but there are wide variations in each. It’s good to know what they bring to the table.
Malt adds fuel to beer, the basic sugar that stokes the yeast to ferment. But any cook can tell you that there is a lot you can do with sugar. Sprinkle it, and it’s simple crunchy sweetness; heat it, and you get caramel; add it to acidic foods, and it takes off the edge without going sweet at all. Then there’s fruit sugars, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, etc. Malt’s got the same wide palate, and a good brewer can get cookies, chocolate, coffee, fresh bread, and even rich barbecue-like smoke from it.
Hops are for bittering in the mainstream beers most people are used to. ‘Bitter’ is unknown territory for most Americans; it has bad connotations, often medicinal. But bitters are used all over Europe as appetite enhancers. They set the mouth up for eating, they cut the cloying edge of rich foods. It’s no coincidence that German food is made for hearty portions served with mugs of deliciously bitter beer.
Add more hops at a different time in the brewing process, though, and you meet the other face of hops: aroma. Hops are like wine grapes in this aspect, there are varieties that give different aromas. Cascades give a fresh pine and grapefruit peel character; Chinooks are grassy; East Kent Goldings have a spicy, earthy nose; German Hallertau hops are floral’¦and there are many more.
Yeast also can bring aroma and flavor to beer. While the yeast is doing its main job of converting sugar into alcohol and carbonation, there are other chemical processes going on as well, creating complex aromatic compounds. This can be as simple as the fruity, nutty esters from English ale yeasts or as striking as the banana/clove/plum profile of German hefeweizen strains. Brewers even use wild yeasts and bacteria to create tart, funky beers like Belgian lambics and American sour ales.
As you can see, simply describing a beer as ‘malty’ or ‘hoppy’ is kind of like describing food as ‘meaty’ or ‘spicy.’ There is a world of difference between the huge, heavily-roasted maltiness of an imperial stout and the dry, refreshing maltiness of a German helles, between the crisp and delicate hoppiness of an English summer ale and the flat-out hop smackdown of a double IPA. Beer has a palate that can meet and embrace a huge range of foods; it’s a marriage that’s just waiting to happen.
Meet and Match
Let’s start light, with the picnic foods and fresh eats of summer. This is where you’re going to find matchups for the mainstream. Light lagers like Budweiser, Corona or the East Coast’s regional favorite Yuengling are good matches for food that doesn’t shout: steamed shrimp, fresh corn on the cob, hot dogs, and grilled chicken. A bigger beer could easily overwhelm food like this, leaving you only tasting the beer.
One of the new things done with beer is actually an old thing. The new Budweiser and Bud Light Cheladas add Clamato and spices in one package. They make a delicious pairing for steamed shellfish, salad, and fresh vegetables: spicy, tangy, and still crisp, a picnic beer that’s begging for a slice of lime and a stalk of celery for a fun time.
Summer means grilling, and that includes meats cooked slow over a low, smoky fire for that great infused flavor: ribs, mopped-up brisket and chicken, pulled pork. Brewers take malt and do the same thing ‘ smoke it over a wood fire ‘ to put that smoky flavor right in the beer. These smoked beers are harder to find, but once you’ve tried them with barbecue (or smoked sausage or fish, or smoked cheeses, or roasted nuts), you’ll be spreading the word to everyone. If smoky beer just doesn’t work for you, pick up the sweet caramel flavors in browned meat with brown ale, like a Newcastle or Brooklyn.
Summer is also a time for salads, made with delicious local lettuce and crisp peppers and onions, dressed up with a vinaigrette fresh from the kitchen. Complement that perfectly with beer. A Belgian dubbel like Leffe Brown will pick up the sweetness in the vegetables and dressing, a beer pairing that is counter-intuitive and brilliant. One that works almost every time is Belgian witbier, a wheat beer made with spices and orange peel that finds the bitterness in the greens and the spice and acidity in the dressing; try the original Hoegaarden or Coors Blue Moon.
Bigger Food, Bigger Beer
As the weather turns cooler, it’s time for bigger soups and stews. If it’s clam chowder, try a lager with a bit more body to it, the widely available Michelob Amber Bock or, again, the versatile Oktoberfest beer; Samuel Adams is a good one. If you’ve got a hankering for a big pot of chili, try cooling it the Mexican way with a dark, slightly sweet bottle of Negro Modelo (also good with pork stews). A spicy goulash begs for a ‘grows there, goes there’ bottle of pilsner to cut the spice and fat, or a Salvator Doublebock to pick up the sweetness of the paprika while smothering the heat.
We eat bigger roasts of meat in the winter, and beer can take the heat. A good pale ale is a classic with roast beef; you can serve up the classic Bass or a crisper Sierra Nevada. Turkey takes a bit more finesse; with the array of side dishes, you can try an array of beers, or go with a fruit beer to pull it all together; maybe a Lindemans Kriek, a sweet-tart cherry lambic from Belgium. Pork roast is a good time for dark lagers like Warsteiner Dunkel; the drier character of the malt in these beers complements the sweetness of the pork without overdoing it.
If you’ve got a fish to serve, don’t shy away from beer. Beers like Hoegaarden or the bigger, spicier saison ‘ Saison Dupont is a classic Belgian import ‘ won’t overwhelm a white fish, and can contrast their crispness with the oiliness of a tuna or bluefish. Shellfish have an affinity for dry stouts like Guinness, although a steaming platter of spicy crabs or shrimp might be a good time for letting the food shine through with crackling cold pitchers of Budweiser or an American wheat, like Widmer Hefeweizen.
The classic German hefeweizens, with their light, creamy body and enticing spicy-fruity aroma, are perfect for creamy cheeses and fresh apples and pears. They’re great drinking beers in the heat, but as the fall harvest comes in, you’ll want them for the fruits and nuts.
You’re not going to remember all this, of course, and we’ve really only scratched the surface. So here are some tips to help you going forward.
There are three books that are a huge source of ideas and inspiration (and you might want to offer them for sale, too). Garrett Oliver is the brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, and a true beer and food enthusiast; his The Brewmaster’s Table set a new standard for beer and food thinking. Anheuser-Busch brewmaster George Reisch is the beer man behind Great Food, Great Beer, a book the company produced to drive consumer interest in beer with food. Finally, Lucy Saunders has been cooking with and pairing with beer for years, and has a very easy-going approach to it; her Best of American Beer and Food has recipes, talks with chefs, and has special sections on pairing beer with chocolate and cheese.
Check with your wholesaler. There are a growing number of wholesalers who are offering beer and food training, and posters and charts with pairing suggestions for their beers. They’ll be happy to talk to you about their programs.
Finally, try it yourself. Experiment at home; go to one of the growing number of gastropubs that focus on beer and food pairings; visit a Belgian or German restaurant and think about how the beers work with the food. You’ll start to get ideas of your own, and that’s when your customers will really catch the fever. Set the table for them, and watch them dig in.