This weekend, SanTan will be participating in the Devoured Culinary Festival, at the Phoenix Art Museum. While presenting our food alongside many other great local eateries, we will also be pouring beer. It feels like a great time to talk about the intricate subject of food and beer pairing.
I have met avid beer drinkers who shy away from attempting to pair beer with food, because they think they might not do it correctly, that it’s “stuffy,” or that it just doesn’t seem worth it. I disagree on all these points, and want to begin by emphasizing that beer and food pairing should never be taken too seriously – it is, after all, just beer. But I can recall a few moments when eating a certain food with a certain beer made me notice elements in each that had never come out before, and really emphasized the quality of all the products on display. And if you choose to drink SanTan, or any other craft beer, you are probably the kind of person who considers the quality of what you drink. But I’ve only arrived at these transcendent tasting moments because I try to avoid setting limits on what is and isn’t OK. I also don’t take it too seriously; sometimes I drink a Devil’s Ale with dinner because I like drinking Devil’s Ale regardless of the food in front of me. What I want to do here is simply share my thought process when I put beer and food together.
To illustrate this, I am going to present a sample beer and walk through my thought process in putting it together with food. Since I talked about IPAs last week, the beer will be our HopShock IPA. To begin, we need to understand the beer itself in terms of flavor, aroma, and texture. HopShock smells very piney (literally, like you’re smelling a pine tree), with plenty of grapefruit and a vague “citrusy” quality. When tasting it, most people notice first that it’s pretty bitter. I also think it has a really nice earthy quality that comes in from the hops. It has a pleasant tingle from the carbonation and is medium-bodied – it’s not heavy and dessert-like where you can only have a few sips, but it definitely remains present on your tongue.
Where do we go from here? Well, we could sprinkle some pine needles on a grapefruit and call it a day, but that might not actually be very good (the most obvious path is not necessarily the best). I like to begin by considering a beer’s intensity, both in degree and kind. By degree I mean: “How intense is it?” A Russian Imperial Stout aged in Bourbon barrels would be very intense, a light blonde ale would not be very intense. As I said, HopShock has a medium body and, I think, a medium-to-high intensity (others may argue with this). However, most of that intensity is concentrated in the bitterness of the beer. This is what I mean by kind of intensity. Some beers may have a similar color, malt character, and alcohol content as HopShock, but be very sour. The intensity of a sour beer is not comparable to the intensity of a bitter beer. By considering the question of intensity, we can easily make comparisons with food and narrow our choices down. A pear and arugula salad with fresh mozzarella and a pomegranate dressing would not be very enjoyable after a few sips of HopShock, while a rich chocolate cake might have too much flavor intensity to make drinking the beer a pleasurable experience. Yet there are still plenty of foods that still sound really good with that HopShock: Hearty vegetables (carrots, turnips, radishes, squashes, eggplant), or braised meats would be a great way to go. It’s now that we start considering the flavors at play.
As we identified earlier, HopShock is intensely bitter. We don’t want something so sweet that it would clash with the bitterness (bread pudding, a fruit tart, or beets for instance). But we also don’t want food equal in bitterness to the HopShock. We want to balance it with the food. Take the squash. One thing that sounds good is maybe to roast some butternut squash, top it with spicy red chile (maybe arbols?) and garnish it with some citrus, like lime. The sweetness of the squash will balance the bitterness, the lime will complement the citrus aroma in the beer, and the chile will give the dish the intensity to work with the beer. Or maybe play up the earthiness rather than the citrus and do something with mushrooms, or just drink the HopShock with a very earthy, pungent cheese. One of my favorite food and beer pairings I’ve ever had was a Spinach daal with a Belgian IPA.
I chose to present things this way because people often talk about food and beer pairing in abstract ways which only make sense if you have actual experience with the phenomena being described (for instance, when one says that a beer has a biscuity malt character, or that a salad dressing is acidic). I used those terms as well, but I wanted to present them within a process, rather than a set of rules. Whatever beer you’re using, and whatever food you want to eat, by giving what you eat and drink a little thought, you will come to understand the quality of the food and drink you consume a little more.