You don’t have to read Shakespeare to appreciate the essential goodness of cakes and ale. (If you want to go there, though, the famous reference comes from Twelfth Night.)
Who can argue against the glorious combination of a beer and a bite? In honor of Asheville Beer Week, here’s a guide to getting the most out of the pint and the plate.
No. 1: Find a starting point
It's always good to know where you stand. If you don't know where you stand, you've probably had too much to drink already. In that case, food and drink pairings are probably lost on you. Otherwise, when you begin your foray, think strategically.
There are different approaches to marrying cuisine with craft brew, and there are no hard and fast rules, explains William Dissen, chef and owner at the Market Place. “There's definitely two schools of thought,” he says. “You can try to find the tasting notes from the beverage and try to pair on those bouquets that you're finding in the beverage, or you can add some of the beverage to whatever you're [cooking] to help accent that.”
No. 2: Think styles
Technical terms like “tasting notes” sound intimidating. If you don't want to get in that deep, just read the label on the beer bottle. Knowing your brew's general characteristics will help you create a harmonious food and beer match.
Mike Mahoney, head chef at Isis, offers some general advice. “You've got particular beers like stouts that go really good with dessert or a meat like lamb,” he says. “With IPAs, I like spicy curry, rice, chicken. But then you've got beers like ales that pair well with anything, and that's when you get to have fun and kind of experiment.”
Like ales, saisons are also a safe bet for the novice cicerone (that’s the professional way of saying someone who likes food and beer a lot). “That style in particular tends to be super-friendly,” says Julie Atallah, who co-owns Bruisin' Ales. “They're light golden, not too alcoholic, usually around 6, 6 1/2 [percent ABV]. They're very earthy, and they can really match and go either way, to either end of the palette.”
No. 3: No shame in talkin'
Plenty of people love food and beer, which is great news because they've already done the work of finding the nuances in the flavors and exploring combinations. Don't feel bad about asking for advice or doing a little research. All good chefs look things up online, Dissen explains. “I think I have a good palate, but it's also nice to know what [the beers] have going on,” he says. “I go to the website and see what they tell me what the tasting notes are.”
At Sunny Point Café, the staff creates beer dinner menus together, says co-owner April Moon Harper. “I find that cooking is more of a collaborative thing,” she says. “People taste things differently.”
No. 4: Taste the music
Even if you do read about the beers online, see what flavors you can find for yourself. When Dissen plans a beer dinner, he starts with a drink.
“If you're talking to a cicerone, they would say you can find every single bouquet, every single tasting note,” he says. But the causal drinker doesn't need to take such a structured approach. “Drink what you like,” he adds.
During Asheville Beer Week, Dissen will host a dinner with Allagash. In preparation, he's already started tasting. “With the Allagash White, it definitely is a little bit citrus-y, has a little bit of coriander in the flavor,” he says. “So we thought seafood.”
No. 5: Take a hint from the weather
During the warmer months, diners seek out fresh flavors. “After being in business for 6 1/2 years, we can see a spike in the sales of hoppy beers once springtime arrives,” Atallah says. “Once the weeds pop, people smell that greenness, and then that's what they want to put in their mouth.”
At the same time drinkers crave hops in their glass, they crave seasonal foods such as asparagus and radishes on their plates. Atallah says trusting your cravings will steer you toward tasty flavor combinations. “They kind of go with the season,” she says. “I see it as an accidental pattern, but I guess what my point is — it accidentally works.”
No. 6: Throw it in a pan
Substituting beer for water, wine or stock in a recipe usually yields a pleasing pairing. “Pork and beer go great together if you're using it as a braising liquid,” Mahoney says. “You've got to be careful with IPAs because if you're cooking with an IPA, the bitterness is almost screaming by the time you cook it.”
Heat reduces IPAs and makes them more bitter, but there are plenty of ways to integrate them into your meal off the stove. “It can be done with an ice cream really well,” Mahoney says. “We're making a sorbet with an IPA base.”
Harper integrates hoppy beers into syrups and salad dressing. “We're going to do a strawberry sorbet with the intermezzo with this pale ale, and I'm going to take the pale ale and make a simple syrup,” she says. She also likes to add hoppy beers to pickling liquids.
No. 7: Don't kill it
Any road that involves beer is usually an easy one by nature. With food, there are only a couple of combinations to avoid. “Sometimes you'll get a beer that has an added flavor, and they call it a palate killer,” Mahoney says. “It overwhelms your palate, and it's hard to follow up with another beer. [Drink them] either by themselves or at the end of the dinner.”
Palate killers include very bitter beers, like certain small batch IPAs, or ones with strong fruit flavors.
And some pairs just aren't meant to be. “I think there's certain things that are going to not pair, and it's going to make the food taste bad and the beer taste bad,” Dissen says. “If you're going to eat spicy Thai food, I don't know if I'd go with an oatmeal stout. It's going to taste pretty peculiar. But drinking a Belgian Trippel or maybe an IPA with spicy food would go well.”
Want to keep your palate clean? Take these two easy measures, explains Atallah: drink water between beers, and don't do anything too fast. The water will flatten out the beer’s carbonation and keep you from getting too full (even if it does take up some room in your stomach), and it will prevent your tastebuds from becoming overwhelmed. “Make sure you're drinking some water for a clean palate, and just like anything, don't do it too quickly,” she says. “Just enjoy it. Slow eating. Slow sips.”
No. 8: Mess around
OK, it’s a bit of a trite ending, but what else can we say? Remember to have fun. Break the rules; pair a malty, heavy beer with a fruity red curry and see if the combo tastes good to you. If you like it, how can it be wrong?
“My biggest advice is just play around and have fun. Just buy beers, experiment,” Mahoney says. “You learn what each particular beer is good for, and you get to play around and experiment.”