A Different Approach to Beer and Food

I think it is established that beer and food pair very well together.  And if you are not already sold on that fact a quick Google search is all you need to find ample reading material on the subject.  So this post is not about why beer and food pairs well or tips on pairing food.  Instead I want to talk about using food as a way to introduce beer to a friend or customer that is reluctant to embrace the barley based goodness that is beer.

I do a lot of beer and food pairings and beer dinners.  I work with a lot of restaurants and bars to help their staff put together amazing events.  Occasionally I get the unique opportunity to schedule a beer pairing in an account that is more wine focused.  Their customers are not unaccustomed to pairing dinners and cheese events.  What they are unaccustomed to is having that dinner or cheese event focused around beer.  These always end up being some of my favorite events!

Last week I had the chance to schedule one such pairing and due to terrible weather and a cancelled appointment I had ample time to sit around and think.  For those people that know me, you know that is sometimes dangerous.  My ADD brain over powers my Type A personality and who knows what I will come up with next.  One such rabbit trail my brain took me on was the methodology used to structure a beer dinner.  There are plenty of ways to do it but I think they all fall into one of two categories: 1) choose the beer, build the food around the beer; 2) plan the food and choose beers that complement the chosen food.  As a general rule bars use the first method and restaurants use the second.  This is not a hard and fast rule but just an observation.

The problem with both of these methods when planning an event for non beer drinkers is the 'non beer drinker' part.  If you choose beers that people's palates aren't ready for then you lose your audience. You can contrast and balance flavors all day long but if your audience isn't ready for a funky farmhouse ale or a super strong barley wine then the food really doesn't matter.

How then, do you plan a beer dinner for non beer drinkers?

So I got to thinking about the things people like about food and the things non beer drinkers dislike about beer and a very simple similarity became obvious...flavor.  I know you are thinking, 'I read all this for that???'  But think about it!  Flavor is not usually the starting point of a beer pairing.  People start with a beer or a dish and then search for appropriate flavors to create the pairing, sometimes stretching those relationships to force a particular dish or beer into the menu.  I know.  I have done it.  You have to incorporate this specific extreme beer into the line up and you end up constructing some ridiculously complex dish, or worse yet, story to make your audience fall in love with what you have put together.  Problem is, the nuances are probably lost on the non beer drinkers in the group.

So what if you started with just flavors that are common between beer and food.  Just flavors with no ideas of what beers or dishes to put together.  The list comes together pretty fast; earthy, spicy, bitter, roasty, caramelized, smokey just to name a few.  These are flavors that the average foodie embraces.  What foodie doesn't like the earthiness of Portabella mushrooms perfectly sauteed in butter?  What foodie doesn't like the carmelization on a perfectly grilled steak?  What foodie doesn't like the integrated smokiness of award winning ribs?

So why, if they love these flavors in their food, wouldn't they love them in their beer.  My theory is they would.  But giving someone that only drinks wine or simple import lager a funky saison is a huge jump.  How do we bridge the gap?

Simple, chose the flavor and then find a beer and simple food that perfectly embodies that flavor. Here is a quick 4 course pairing I threw together using this methodology...

Citrusy
     Beer: St. Bernadus Wit
     Food: Spring Salad with citrus vinaigrette

Earthy
     Beer: Ommegang Hennepin Saison
     Food: Sauteed Portabella Mushrooms with herb butter

Carmelized
     Beer: Chimay Red Belgian Dubbel
     Food: Pan seared pork medalians topped with carmelized onions

Roasty
     Beer: Smuttynose Robust Porter
     Food: Grilled Rib eye steak

What is your method for pairing food and beer?