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The perfect match

Beer and food: It's not just hot dogs and pretzels anymore



Next week (May 12-18) is  American Craft Beer Week, sponsored by the Brewers Association, an organization dedicated to protecting and promoting craft breweries, defined as small (less than 2 million barrels annually), independent and traditional. Activities are planned at breweries across the country. The week concludes with Savor: An American Craft Beer & Food Experience in Washington, D.C., featuring nearly 100 American craft beers paired with food dishes.

The beer-and-food theme is meant to recognize a recent upswing in appreciation among foodies for the versatility of beer as an accompaniment to food. To see that craft beer and food pairings are a bona fide trend, look no further than the marketing monster that is Anheuser-Busch, which has been tossing the term "craft beer" around quite a bit, even though it does not qualify as a craft brewer under the Brewers' Association guidelines. Its "Crafting a Better Beer" campaign features salt-of-the-earth farmers standing in front of amber waves of grain, and it has sponsored beer pairings on popular food programs. On Food Network's "Dinner Impossible," gonzo chef and résumé-padder Robert Irvine was tasked with pairing dishes with Michelob's recently introduced craft beer line for a dinner with 100 select A-B tasters and brewing personnel.

Bravo's "Top Chef" incorporated beer into a recent Quickfire Challenge that asked the chefs to create a dish to pair with a beer chosen from 16 different "types." The different types looked remarkably similar lined up on a table in pitchers, and it turns out that all were connected in some way with Anheuser-Busch. In the challenge, only one of the chefs, Stephanie, talked about the qualities of the beer she was using, adding coriander and citrus to a plate of mussels to complement the same flavors in Hoegaarden Belgian witbier. I guess this is not surprising considering that out of 13 beers I was able to identify, more than half were European or American standard lagers.

Perhaps more disturbing than the anemic quality of the beers presented in the challenge (Michelob Ultra Lime Cactus?) was the lack of enthusiasm from the chefs. Several of the chefs professed ignorance of beer, while one was of the opinion that beers "all taste the same," revealing that he had not tasted many beers. The winner? A dish paired with Landshark Lager, an "island beer" brewed at Anheuser-Busch's Jacksonville plant by Margaritaville Brewing Company, a creation of the Anheuser-Busch marketing department.

Still, the art and science of beer pairing is in its infancy, and it is fair to say that even those who are considered experts on the topic emphasize that it is easy and fun, unburdened by excessive formality. "I like to think of beer as more of a shotgun and wine as more of a rifle when pairing with food," says David Larkworthy, of Atlanta's 5 Seasons Brewing. "Beer goes with most food, and some food that you could never pair with any wine, you can pair with beer." In the introduction to his book, The Brewmasters' Table, Brooklyn Brewing Company's Garrett Oliver makes a similar case: "The range of flavors and aromas in beer is vast – it's deep and wide and tall. And it easily surpasses that of wine. Beer has bitterness to slice through fat, carbonation to refresh the palate, caramelized flavors to match those in your food, and sweetness to quench the fire of chiles."

For a good primer on what styles of beer pair well with different foods, check out the online guide from Fine Living Network. Although the suggestions are not unexpected, it is a helpful place to start for those just getting acquainted with the possibilities of beer and food.

Beer to meet wine in winner-take-all grudge match for the hand of food in marriage

Many Atlanta restaurateurs are stepping up to the plate with creative, elaborate dinners that take beer seriously as an accompaniment to a gourmet meal. This doesn't mean they take themselves seriously, though. Not content to let beer sit in wine's shadow, 5 Seasons North head brewer Crawford Moran has laid down the gauntlet and challenged Gina Hopkins, owner and sommelier at Restaurant Eugene, to an old-fashioned duel to determine once and for all what pairs better with food, beer or wine. Eugene's chef/owner, Linton Hopkins, and 5 Seasons' chef/owner, David Larkworthy, are combining their talents and working together to prepare a special five-course dining experience just for the contest. Gina Hopkins will pair each course with a wine, while Moran will select one of his own beers to pair with each course. The parties have apparently agreed that the results will be final, but since Gina is a certified sommelier who will be drawing from the best wines in the world, while Moran will be limited to his own award-winning creations, it would seem that for the competition to be fair, Gina should have to make her own wine.

This is billed as a two-round bout with two separate dinners – one at 5 Seasons North and one at Restaurant Eugene. Round 1 will be held at 5 Seasons North on Wednesday, May 28, at 7 p.m.. The price is $75 per person. Only 55 ringside seats are available for Round 1, so contact 5 Seasons North at 770-521-5551 to reserve your spot. Round 2 will take place at Restaurant Eugene on Tuesday, Aug. 19. For reservations for Round 2, please contact Restaurant Eugene at 404-355-0321.

Other upcoming local beer dinners promise to move beyond the basics as well. The 5th Earl Market in Decatur is pulling out all the stops for its St. Bernardus Beer Dinner on Saturday, May 17. The dinner will feature five courses, plus a reception paired with five beers from the St. Bernardus line of abbey ales. Among the food highlights are lobster two ways, roasted Long Island duck breast, a cheese board and a bread pudding with caramelized bananas, toffee and Abt 12 ice cream. Cost is $85 per person. Call the store at 404-377-5477 for reservations.

Twain's is thinking outside the box with a vegetarian beer dinner, slated for Wednesday, May 14, at 7 p.m. Menu highlights include fresh gazpacho and spent-grain pizza with Portobello mushrooms, spinach and gorgonzola. The beer will include the debut of the brewery's hefeweizen, as well as some barrel-aged strong ale. Tickets are available at Twain's and are just $30 if purchased by May 10 and $35 thereafter.

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