Drinking on the Last Frontier: Get into holiday spirits

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell

We are heading into the time of year that’s characterized by dinner parties and social gatherings. Since we’re all going to be eating and drinking a lot in the next few weeks, I’d like to talk about pairing craft beer with good food in general, and then make some specific suggestions for beers to accompany a couple of traditional holiday meals.

First, let’s talk about the basics of pairing beer (or any other beverage, for that matter) with food. There are three principles or protocols when pairing with food — cut, contrast and complement. Essentially, you should decide which of these three goals you are expecting the beer to achieve, and let that guide you in making an appropriate selection.
The first protocol is to cut.

Literally, this means you want the beer to cut through the predominant taste or ingredient of a particular dish.

Beer is especially well-suited for this purpose (more so than wine, for example), thanks to its carbonation, which helps to scrub the tongue. Additionally, the bitterness from the hops in beer helps to cut through rich foods. If you are serving a dish with a rich cream sauce, for example, a proper cut choice — perhaps a hoppy, well-carbonated Czech pilsner — will help cleanse your palate between bites, refreshing it and keeping it coming back for more.

The second option is to select a beer to contrast with the food. In this case, you are looking to establish a counterpoint to the flavors of a dish. A sweeter, malt-forward beer contrasts well with spicy or salty foods, while a beer with plenty of roasted malt flavors contrasts nicely with sweet foods.

The bitterness from hops obviously contrasts with a sweet dish. Alcohol also contrasts well with sweetness, so pairing a Russian imperial stout with its high alcohol content and strong-roasted flavors with a sweet dessert, like a rich chocolate mousse, is doubly effective.

Alcohol also opens the pores on the tongue, so it increases the experience of pepper heat. This explains why beer, which typically has much less alcohol by volume, works much better with spicy foods than does a 12 percent red wine.

The final choice is a pairing designed to complement a dish’s flavor profile. The roasted flavors typically found in darker beers complement grilled, roasted or smoked foods well. Hops are actually flowers, so beers that use lots of them often work well with dishes that have strong herbal, citrus or floral elements to them.

Often, if a dish is cooked using a particular beer, the same beer may be served as an accompaniment, though, personally, I view that as a very lazy way to do your pairings.

Here are a few other things to consider: Don’t just focus on the type of protein being served. The extremely simplistic white- and red-wine rules we’ve all heard do this. Besides what is being cooked, look at how it’s being prepared, specifically the ingredients being used.

You also want to try to match intensities. Delicate beers go best with delicate dishes, while bold beers need bold flavors to stand up to them. If you fail to match intensities, the more intense part of the pairing, be it the beer or the dish, will ride roughshod over the other part.

So let’s move beyond theory and discuss some specifics. Two of the traditional meals for this time of year are ham and, of course, roast turkey.

Starting with the ham, its exact method of preparation will greatly impact your options. There’s likely to be quite a bit of sweetness to it, especially if it’s honey-cured or baked with pineapple, so I think I’d go with a more hoppy beer for a nice contrast. A Belgian tripel, like Midnight Sun’s Panty Peeler, or a strong golden ale, like their Fallen Angel, would be good choices.

Then there’s the mother of all feasts — turkey. Given its roasted flavors, some maltiness is called for. Choose a nice Oktoberfest (St. Elias Brewing has one on tap), or a Belgian dubbel, with its flavors of dark fruit. A third choice might be a French biere de garde, whose earthy, malty flavor profile works wonderfully with the quintessential American bird.

What if you are presented with a very unusual dish, something you just have no idea how to pair? In situations like that, my go-to beer is a Belgian-style saison, such as Saison Dupont, Boulevard Brewing’s Tank 7, or Ommegang’s Hennepin.

Don’t ask me why, but this style of beer seems to be very flexible. It may not be the best possible pairing, but it’s seldom a disaster either.

Finally, remember, all of the above constitute merely suggestions, not rules. If you find a pairing that works for you, even if it violates all of the above, go for it!
Until next month, cheers!

Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver.

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