Local brews, imports, craftsman styles bring more choice to Miller time.
By Greg McCluney
If you’ve slowly moved away from drinking beer toward the more interesting and varied world of wine and spirits, it may be time to revisit the beer aisle—but it won’t be for just another six-pack of Bud or Miller Lite. Things have changed in the beer world. Although U.S. wine consumption recently outpaced that of beer for the first time ever, most of that gain came from the mega brands, in terms of lost market share.
Several forces are at work to get you back to the joys of beer drinking. Local brewpubs are nothing new but they have expanded to the suburbs in most cities, bringing fresh, interesting “craft” brews to more people. And the quality seems to consistently improve. Import lines increase every year. From Belgian Ale to Oatmeal Stouts and Smoked Beers, things are getting a lot more exciting. In the case of “Extreme” beers with unheard of alcohol levels, some as high as 20 per cent, things get much more exciting.
More fine dining restaurants are serving a list of craft beers and ales and pairing them with foods from their menus. They even host monthly beer dinners to rival fancy wine and food pairings that are often priced at $150 per person and up. Some are even offering a beer and cheese plate after the meal. While many of us have written about the joys of enjoying beer with spicy Asian and Indian cuisines, the fact is many dishes simply taste better with beer, not just barbecue. New tasting classes educate consumers on which glass best complements a certain beer’s style and why some beers can be aged like fine wine—and then, how to taste the difference. In larger northeastern cities, you may even be advised by a beer sommelier while you scan the menu. Over 1500 breweries are now producing close to seven million barrels of beer in the U.S.
All this attention is giving fine brews some of the credit they deserve. But negotiating the many styles of brewing can be just as daunting as your first encounter with a massive restaurant wine list, especially when attempting a food match. Some reference books list over one hundred styles of beer—and there are more. To help get you started in this strange new world, see our pairings listed in the sidebar of this story. It won’t give you all the answers but a good example of what serious tasters match to some beers. Remember, the world of beer availability is, like wine, different in every state, county and city. Ultimately, you’ll have to pick from what’s available to you. The higher-octane beers in some states, such as Georgia, have only recently been made available by changes in state laws.
Beer and Food Pairings
Taste is always a subjective thing. But when beer-friendly chefs and drinkers get together, here are a few ideas to try beyond the usual barbecue, Indian and Chinese.
Roast pork a sweet, yeasty ale with fruit notes
Grilled tuna Belgian-style Wheat Beer
Beef short ribs any robust ale
Fish & Chips a sweet ale
Cheesecake a pale lager
Foie Gras Abbey ale
Swiss cheese Bock beer
Goat cheese Wheat Beer
Cheddar/Gloucester Brown/Nut ales
In general, keep the sweeter beers with the sweeter foods and tarter beers with tarter foods. Beers with strong hops and bitters need strong, spicy foods to complement them. Overall, experiment and match what you like. It’s supposed to be fun!
Ah, Octoberfest…a World of Beer!
Nothing excites a beer drinker more than the annual pilgrimage to their Mecca, Bavaria, in Germany for Octoberfest. Even for most of us who can’t make the trip, local celebrations are now held almost everywhere there is beer, around the globe. Almost two hundred years later, it still reigns as beer’s big event of the year.
Prince Ludwig of Bavaria established Octoberfest in October of 1810 in honor of his marriage to Princess Therese of Saxony. Being a man in touch with his people, Ludwig decided to invite everyone to his wedding celebration—not just those of noble blood. Alas, 40,000 of them actually showed up…and Octoberfest was born. And it is still held at the same location, the Theresienwiese. Of course, the festival now lasts 16 days, which is long for anyone’s wedding and includes an agricultural show and carnival. The original horse race has been dropped. It begins in mid-September through the first Sunday in October. Major breweries sponsor the event which hosted six million folks in the beer halls drinking five million liters of beer.
Oktoberfestbier is a special style of beer brewed just for the occasion, although some brewers apparently just re-label their existing beer for the celebration. Real seasonal festival beer is fragrant, deep toasted malt, herbal sweet and red-amber in color—lots of hops. Good examples are Beck’s and Sam Adam’s, which are widely available. This style of beer was brewed during the winter and stored for summer/fall drinking when temperatures were just too hot to brew, before refrigeration. You can sample the beer and the ale and see which one puts you in the best mood to enjoy beer’s biggest party of the year.
How to Pour and Taste Your Beer
Just like wine, beer should be properly presented for a good tasting. (see glassware) And the first step is to choose the correct vessel. There are about as many styles of beer glasses as there are for wines, so be prepared to buy at least a few of the basics to properly appreciate your beers. An example of how extreme this can become is Belgium where each beer may come with its own glass! That puts winemaking and bottling to shame. Experts agree that the glass affects the head or foam at the top of the glass, and different beers taste best with different heads at the point of contact—the glass. Here are a few suggestions:
Suggested Glassware for Beer
Mug American ales, Bock, English Bitter
Pint Glass American and English Pale ale and Stout, Cider
Snifter Belgian Dark Ale, Lambic, Mead
Flute Lambic, Flanders Red, Munich Lager
Pilsner Glass Malt Liquor, German Pilsener, low alcohol beer
Storage and Aging
Craft beers and many imports can mature and improve and change with time, just like good wine, but they must be stored properly. If you want to appreciate beer aging, buy at least two of everything and keep notes. Drink one right away and leave the other for a year or so, then retrieve your original notes and compare. Otherwise, you just taste two different beers made in the same original style. Always store in a cool, dark space but not too cold. Around 45-50 degrees should be adequate. It is not necessary to store your corked beers on their sides, according to most experts. Some even feel this can be harmful.
As you’ve probably seen in the pubs of Europe, pouring a correct glass of beer is not something to be taken lightly. Pour the beer at an angle so it slides down the side of the glass, not straight to the bottom. Let the head go and then settle by turning the glass more upright as the beer fills. The head is where many of the aromatics of the brew will exhibit themselves. When tasting through several beers, rinse the glass or use a clean one. And don’t mix styles of beer in one glass.
The new world of beer can be just as interesting as wine, some think even more. But don’t be overwhelmed by all the choices, just move beyond Miller and Bud time to…say Pale ale time. And enjoy!
While our emphasis has always been on wine, and wine is what we generally pair with food or enjoy as an aperitif or a digestif that is not to say we don’t also love some spirits, an innovative cocktail or a good beer. Certainly, with the majority of dinners I have enjoyed, they begin with Champagne or a Sparkling Wine and the dishes are accompanied by an appropriate wine, followed by a dessert, paired with Port or a sweet wine. I have been to some dinners where various Champagnes, Vodkas or Cognacs were successfully paired with the food throughout the entire meal. I only paired beer with ribs, fish and chips, sushi and other Asian cuisine, and Mexican dishes. I also liked a cold beer on picnics, at the beach, at the 19th hole of a golf course and while playing pool. A college friend and I used to make pocket money playing pool at the local bars in San Diego, which called for lots of beers to wash down the peanuts. My friend, Ron, has a second home in the Borrego Desert which can get up to 120 degrees in the summer. While we try to avoid going in the summer, warm to hot days in the spring and fall are best enjoyed with a bottle of any of the three Chimay beers from the Belgian Trappist Brewery.
It was not until several years ago that I was introduced to pairing beer with more elegant dishes. Ron Brown, my father and I were in Las Vegas and wanted to have a good dinner in a comfortable, relaxing, non-glitzy restaurant off the Strip. We found Rosemary’s on West Sahara, about 20 minutes from the Strip, was exactly what we were looking for. Located in a neighborhood strip mall on the west side, we were pleased with the inviting and attractively-decorated restaurant and bar, offering more intimate dining, and a menu featuring creative, French-influenced, New American cuisine. What was surprising about the menu was the listing of beer and wine pairings, where the world-class beers are accorded the same respect as the world-class wines. We started with Champagne cocktails and ordered a bottle of wine from their extensive wine list. Ron and I, not being that adventuresome, decided to stick with wine but my dad wanted to check out their beer recommendations. Of course, we had to taste his beers and the restaurant’s suggested pairings were right on, calling for more beers. We have been back to Rosemary’s on every Las Vegas visit since and never been disappointed. Chef-owners Michael and Wendy Jordan have a winner with Rosemary’s outstanding food and excellent service. For a truly memorable dining experience, this is a must stop on your next visit to Las Vegas and don’t forget to try out one or more of their inspired beer pairings.
What do you think about beer? About beer being the next wine? About pairing beer with food? We’d like to hear from you. Let us know what you think.