Preparing and pairing with beer

by Ari LeVaux

When food and drink cross paths, wine is usually in the mix, either as an ingredient in the meal or as a beverage with which to pair it. We like to think of wine and food as equal partners in a deep and meaningful culinary conversation.

Beer, on the other hand, doesn’t share wine’s air of refinement, and the food with which it is customarily eaten is more often chosen for its sponging properties than for its pairing possibilities.

This perception seems to be changing. The Internet has become flooded with beer-based recipes and beer/food recommendations, and many big-city restaurants have hired beer sommeliers to assist customers in ordering complementary suds.

Some brew enthusiasts go so far as to claim that beer is more food-friendly than wine, because while winemakers have only grapes to work with, beer makers have bitter hops, sweet barley, bready yeast, spices, nuts, fruit, chocolate, pumpkin, licorice, orange peel ... basically anything at their disposal. Such extravagance opens the door to more complex and nuanced pairings than wine’s color-coded rules of thumb like red wine with red meat, white wine with white flesh.

Even so, a parallel is often drawn between lagers and white wines, and between ales and red wines, allowing for a simple transfer of those paint-by-color rules into the realm of beer pairings.

This is where I draw the line. The No. 1 rule in food-and-beverage pairing is that both food and drink should taste better as a result of the combination, and I don’t think there’s a beer in existence that will coax more flavor out of a steak than a cheap glass of red. And no beer, however sweet, will beat a good dessert wine alongside your lemon meringue pie. Beer with your cheese? No thank you please, not unless that cheese is cooked into beer-friendly food like pizza, chile relleno, or a burger.

Instead of using some pat formula to translate the rules of wine pairing to beer, back up and start with this simple question: Which category of beverage is best paired with which particular food? Some foods go better with wine, others with beer.

Foods that are greasy, salty or spicy are particularly well suited to beer, as are foods cooked with beer – I’ll get to some of those in a moment. Spicy foods go well with hoppy beers, like India pale ales, if you want to emphasize the spice. On the other hand, if you’re afraid of spicy heat, you might want to smother it with a sweet, thick porter. Carbonation cuts grease, so heavily carbonated beer goes well with pizza. There’s also a case to be made for pairing beers with foods made from similar ingredients, so that wheat beers make sense with bread-based fare like sandwiches.

But none of these suggestions are carved in stone. The bottom line is that beer drinkers are often particular in their preferences, and they’re not likely to switch beers based on what’s on their plates.

That’s why I believe cooking with beer deserves more attention then pairing particular foods with it.

A good beer batter can be magical. Just ask a college date of mine after she ate some chicken I’d let marinate overnight in beer batter before deep-frying. That meal got me a lot further than I probably deserved.

These days, halibut is my beer-battered protein of choice, and I use a recipe I pried from the proprietor of the Cooper Landing Roadhouse in southern Alaska.

Batter: 1 cup Krusteaz pancake mix, ½ cup amber beer, two pinches dried dill, one pinch seasoned salt.

Cut halibut into 1½-inch pieces. Dip them in the batter and roll them in Japanese panko flakes. Place the battered pieces on wax paper so they don’t touch each other, and freeze. When frozen, put them in a plastic bag and keep frozen until ready for use.

To cook, immerse the frozen battered chunks of fish in hot grapeseed or safflower oil. This halibut, with hot sauce and tartar sauce, needs beer like fries need catsup.

Of course, no discussion of beer and food would be complete without mention of Wisconsin’s customary tribal pairing: beer and bratwurst. In principle, the brats are bathed in warm beer, often with chopped onion, garlic, and black pepper. This adds moisture and flavor to the brats.

I’m willing to wade only so deep into this topic in deference to the great schism in the ’Sconie beer-brat community: those who pre-cook their brats in warm beer (not boiling, not even simmering, except for the occasional lazy bubble) before grilling, versus those who bathe their brats in warm beer after grilling.

Each camp has reams of documentation and anecdotal evidence supporting its method as the one true way to prepare beer brats, and the battle lines are completely redrawn with regard to the sticky question of whether the beer must be Old Milwaukee.

But at the risk of being pelted to death with cheese curds, I’ll admit that, much to my surprise, in a side-by-side taste test, I preferred brats that were beer-bathed after grilling. And my favorite beer for this procedure – and for drinking with the finished product – was a microbrew pilsner.

Between the beer bath and the beer batter, you now have plenty of justifications to drink beer with your meal. And if none of these appeal to you, you can always start by putting on a pair of beer goggles, which will make almost anything palatable. Just ask that beer-buttered date of mine from college. •



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