I used to watch a lot of Food Network; Good Eats and Iron Chef America, on both sides of the entertainment spectrum, were my favorite. Alton Brown’s Mr. Wizard-like citizen science epitomized my ideal life in the kitchen; practical tools and a commercial-level know-how in a home setting appeal to my sense of efficiency and creativity. With Brown as host of the sequel to the original great cooking game show, with its dramatic lighting, swinging cameras, and do-or-die time constraints (I have since moved on to the placid, polite Great British Baking Show; I’m old), the competing chefs were mostly battling their own time management skills, while maintaining enough composure to manipulate and perfectly plate the secret ingredient. The words the judges used to describe and criticize the food informed my lexicon; I brought that to restaurants and, eventually, beer.
There are lots of ways to think about cooking and brewing, and a lot of those overlap; I enjoy dissecting a meal into its constituent flavors and tastes, and equating them to a beer. The reverse, starting with the beer (and a good conversational partner), is how I develop beer pairing menus. Rather than considering the ingredients themselves, recognizing texture, acidity, sweetness, bitterness, and the other basic sensations in the mouth help to find inspiration for what will be, at best, a dance between food and drink. Once those basics have been established, the flavor discussion follows.
The chemical reactions that occur when pairing food and beer are too complicated to explain easily; I’m no scientist, but have practiced and read enough to understand that an acidic or highly carbonated beer will break apart the fatty proteins in a bite of a creamy dish (with a béchamel sauce, for example) and effectively clear the palate. Because creating a beer pairing is a very intentional act, all of these sorts of factors must be taken into account. The poetic limitations of pairing–choosing the right type of acid, adjusting the crunchiness or level of char–make it at once daunting and alluring. It’s like the prospect of having a threesome; adding a third person to an already complex act (emotionally, if not physically) increases the likelihood of mishap by 150%. Thankfully, our tastebuds are pretty forgiving.
A recent, quite random experience sums up how a high intensity beer pairing can go right. I was at a local brewery, chatting with the brewer about a batch of beer; it was the first generation yeast pitch for a hazy IPA (nerd alert!). My impression was of papaya, mango, orange, and some soft red apple yeast esters that added complexity. It finished on the bitter side, but had body. My friend had ordered a green curry with chicken from the food cart outside, and offered me a bite. The sauce had a building heat with its own fruitiness, but was tempered by the coconut milk, just enough so my tongue didn’t burn. Fortuitously, the IPA was a perfect pairing. Without the body provided by the yeast in suspension and a small dose of oats, the bitterness of the beer would have turned the heat up to 11 (I typically avoid bitter beer with spicy food; I find it unpleasant and over-filling). The fresh tropical character of the hops played into the complexity of the spices, and the soft carbonation washed just enough of the flavor off the palate that I wanted another bite. He let me finish the plate.
Had I been drinking a sour beer, the pairing would have been a disaster. A hefeweizen, still cloudy and full but much less intense, would have played well but not on all levels. Couldn’t have planned that one better.