By Kristi Willis
Photography by Jenna Noel
It’s not unusual to be offered a wine pairing with a particular dish at a restaurant, and increasingly, servers are also suggesting a preferred pint for each plate. Beer and food pairing isn’t new, of course; chefs in the classic brewing regions of Germany, Belgium and France have been fashioning menus to complement their beers for centuries.
Special brewer dinners and pairing menus have become more common stateside, though, with the explosive growth of the craft-beer industry.
With brewers adding elements like pecan, chocolate, jalapeño and Jamaican spices to their products, beer now presents even more room for experimentation than wine.
The Great American Beer Festival—held in Denver each fall—features a tasting pavilion offering dozens of small plates from chefs around the country that were created to highlight the uniqueness of particular beers. This past year, the room was packed with attendees intently exploring the diversity and complexity of the matchups and peppering the chefs with questions of how and why they chose certain elements for their dishes.
Closer to home, several restaurants have begun featuring dinners focused on a handful of beers from one brewer, and often include rare beers that are only available in small quantities. 24 Diner hosted 11 beer dinners just last year. “The thing about beer is that it is so complex and there are even more flavors involved than in wine,” says Chef Drew Curren. “There are so many things that you can play with in a beer, from alcohol level to carbonation to what style it is. There truly is a beer for every food and a food for every beer.”
Chef Curren first considers matching the intensity of beer and food. If the beer is light and crisp, like a hefeweizen or pilsner, he pairs it with a light, refreshing course. Serving a subtle beer with a heavy dish, such as a braised lamb shank, would overwhelm the beer and mask its taste. Similarly, a stout or porter matched with delicate oysters would squash the flavor of the food. The trick is to find the balance.
Along with their team, John and Kendall Antonelli, owners of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, have matched over 200 beers and cheeses since opening in 2010. “What’s really fascinating with the whole thing of pairing is that everyone’s palate is different. What is very intimate for my palate could be very off-putting for others,” John shares. “In a perfect pairing, neither the beer [nor] the cheese overpowers the other.”
As with wine, when serving multiple beers, it’s important to let the flavors progress in strength so as not to overwhelm the taste buds in the beginning. Starting with lighter lagers and ales, then working up to stronger porters and stouts, ensures that the diner can enjoy the special qualities of each course.
It’s also important to consider whether the flavors complement or contrast each other. A cheese with a nutty element can complement a nutty beer—like a brown ale—while a beer with a higher acidity can contrast a fatty food and cut through the heaviness of the dish.
“We are trying to take two independent, unique flavors where the summation is greater than the parts,” says John. “It’s hard, but it is so rewarding when it comes true.”
Chef Curren treats the beer like an ingredient in a recipe. “The thing for me is to use a little restraint and let the beer be the main focus,” he explains. “If there is a citrus or lemon characteristic in the beer, I will purposefully leave out acid or leave out a citrus component in a dish that normally wants one, and let the beer be that component.”
The Antonellis also suggest allowing for the element of texture added by the carbonation. “Beer brings with it effervescence,” says John. “It forces some of that air and carbonation up into your nose, which is where the pairing takes on a new level. The nose is where something magical happens.”
Of course, the carbonation can also cause unwanted results by intensifying some flavors in a potentially unpleasant way. Bay Anthon—co-owner of Hopfields restaurant, which has over 40 beers on tap—warns that the bubbles can make spice more intense and amplify heat to an undesirable level. He suggests serving spicy food with a lighter beer, or one with a sweeter note to contrast the heat.
Don’t hesitate to experiment. “Because beer and cheese pairing is fairly new, there are no built-in assumptions like there are with wine,” says John. “There’s no specific way to do it. People are willing to experiment more because there are fewer preconceived notions.”
Kevin Brand of (512) Brewing Company shares that he is often surprised by what works well together. “We tried a washed-rind goat cheese from Twig Farm that is smelly, dark orange and runny—gorgeous in so many ways. It’s so strong and pungent that I was shocked to find that it went well with our wit, which is a delicate citrus beer.”
When Brand initially started pairing beer and food, he also thought their hefty India Pale Ale (IPA) would be the best beer with spicy dishes. But when they tried it, the IPA was too overwhelming. “The wit to me is more of our food-pairing champion,” says Brand. “There are so many things that it seems to go well with, including spicy food.”
Anthon also discovered a few pairing-related surprises of his own along the way. “The Tarte aux Tomates has a nice, buttery crust and it works great with a stout. The butter comes out like crazy in the tart when you taste it with the beer. I actually leave the crust until the very end so I can enjoy it almost like coffee and dessert.”
Another of Anthon’s favorites is enjoying an IPA with the Salade Niçoise, as the floral notes in the IPA complement the strong flavors in the vinaigrette.
Kendall Antonelli enjoys matching unexpected beers and cheeses. “It’s really fun to pair lambics [a Belgian wheat beer that often has a fruit or cider flavor] with cheeses because sometimes people don’t even know what a lambic is, or they don’t know how the fruit will play well with the cheese.”
Ultimately, Anthon urges beer lovers not to be weighed down by convention. “We want it to be a personal experience for our customers. I don’t want it to become white wine with fish and you have to have this beer with that. It’s your preference and your taste.”
With more than a dozen craft breweries in Central Texas, there are plenty of opportunities to explore dishes and pairings that elevate the food and the beer to new heights.
Pairing Cheese with Local Beers
by John Antonelli
Valdeón (Spain) with Draught House Pub Weizen Heimer Hefeweizen
Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (Vermont) with Jester King Craft Brewery Black Metal Imperial Stout
Landaff (New Hampshire) with Adelbert’s Brewery Dancin’ Monks
Ascutney Mountain (Vermont), especially the rind, with (512) Brewing Company Whiskey Barrel Aged Double Pecan Porter
Hopelessly Bleu (Texas) with Live Oak Brewing Company HefeWeizen
Caveman Blue (Oregon) with Real Ale Brewing Company Coffee Porter
Le Maréchal (Switzerland) with Independence Brewery Bootlegger Brown
Comté (France), aged 16 months, with Thirsty Planet Brewing Company Thirsty Goat Amber
Brewers Association’s Brief Beer & Food Matching chart includes suggestions for matching 28 styles of beer with foods, cheeses and desserts, as well as the recommended glassware and temperatures for serving the beers. The guide is a handy tool for the novice testing out pairings at home. Go to brewersassociation.org and search for “food matching.”
CraftBeer.com Beer and Food Pairing specifics: craftbeer.com and search for “food pairing.”
Beer Advocate Food & Beer Pairing guide: beeradvocate.com/beer/style_pairings
Epicurious How to Pair Food and Beer, by James Oliver Cury: