Craft brew and cuisine
As craft brewing has risen from niche to normal within the American beer industry, the product of hardworking, talented brewers has taken its rightful place on the table alongside the work of equally talented, hardworking chefs. As this evolution has progressed, the question of which beer with which dish, or even in which dish, is increasingly debated on the culinary scene.
It’s not surprising to Randy Sterrett, head chef at Golden Valley Brewing’s McMinnville location, that beer is more routinely paired with food the way wine has been for decades, or that the marriage of craft brew and cuisine can be just as complicated as between food and wine.
“Beer actually has as much flavor variety, if not more, than wine. There’s more ingredients to work with,” Sterrett said. “You can get something as light as a light lager that’s Budweiser-ish all the way to something that’s a real robust stout thick and creamy and rich and kind of bitter and sweet at the same time; and everything in between.”
But, as with pairing wine, there are some easy basics to putting food and beer together. “Richer food with richer beers. Just like you’d serve a rich, braised meat with a red wine, you’d want to go with a porter or a red ale or something,” Sterrett said. “If you have something spicy, you might want to go with something a little bitter and crisp; you’d want to have an IPA.”
A hamburger is a classic American food served with beer for as long as both have existed. Before, and even since, the blossoming of the American brewing palate, that burger was served with a pale lager — something akin to Budweiser. But as rich as a hamburger is, it might pair better with something like a porter or a full-bodied pale ale.
Ultimately, it’s a process of trial and error to find the perfect match, explains Grain Station Brew Works brewer Joe D’Aboy.
“Try several. What it really boils down to is ‘What does that person like?’” he said. “Some people don’t like IPAs, so if we pair a food with an IPA, there’s going to be a crowd that maybe wants that dish, they’re not going to like that pairing based on they don’t like IPAs.”
“What I think people should do is try stuff,” he said. “It’s totally experiential. That’s why we do tasters here.”
Drinking beer with food is one thing, but cooking with it is an entirely separate step, and preparing dishes specifically to complement a beer, and vice versa, is another level beyond that. D’Aboy works closely with Grain Station’s head chef Matt McMahon to push the envelope of how beer and food play together. D’Aboy crafted a gin-barrel-aged wheat beer and McMahon spent weeks putting together the perfect dish to accompany it as a special for the beer’s release event.
“I’m doing a lavender and juniper braised lamb. We tried three or four vegetables the other day; we’re trying to narrow it down where one doesn’t overpower the beer and one that matches the beer. We’re going to want a lighter veg with the potato and arugula and the brined juniper lamb that pairs really well with the gin,” he explained. Beer in food is nothing foreign for Sterrett, either — his first foray into beer cooking was in the early ‘80s with a leftover section of tough beef and some porter. Sterrett put both together in a braising pan with onions, with fantastic results.
“I just fell in love with it,” he said. “Connective tissue is tough, but when you cook it with something slightly acidic, that breaks down and it gets really soft and flavorful.”
Selecting a beer to cook with is much like picking a beer to drink with a particular food, though a complementary approach is more often successful. It is still, though, a trial-and-error process, as McMahon discovered when he perfected a beer-steamed clam recipe.
“I stayed away from heavy dark beers. I tried it with the red (Grain Station’s Walnut City Red Ale), but it was a little overpowering. Bet The Farm (IPA) was getting there, but as soon as (Joe) came out with that saison, we tasted one clam and that was it,” he said. “That was the beer.”
D’Aboy’s Farmhouse Saison highlights the richness of the clams and combines with lemon, butter and herbs to make a steaming sauce good enough to slurp on its own, as McMahon has seen many customers do.
“Instead of throwing a lot of crazy spices and salt, it’s more of the reduced saison, fresh thyme, clams, a little salt and pepper, fresh garlic and bread. People sop that up,” D’Aboy said. “It’s pretty much warm beer, but it’s so good with the clams and the garlic that you literally see people drinking the bowl.”
The dish is, naturally, excellent when paired with the saison, but a pint of D’Aboy’s Pitchfork Pilsner also plays well, enhancing the buttery flavor of the dish.
That intricate interplay is what makes the place where food and beer meet truly phenomenal.
“What the magic is all about, with beer and with wine, is that you’ve got these fermented ingredients that take on a life of their own. You start with these simple ingredients and there’s this magic that happens, it turns into something else,” Sterrett said. “When you pair it with food, when you take a bite of some food and you take a drink of some beer or some wine, it changes in your mouth. They both change. You only get that by trying it, by actually tasting it.”
Taste is key, especially as each person’s palate is different. So at the end of the day, if you like a Bud with your burger, these chefs and brewers are not going to stop you. “It comes down to if you, yourself, like it. If you do, that’s a good paring,” D’Aboy said.
“If you like Budweiser with your hamburger, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Sterrett said. “That’s your pairing.”