The sprawling and diverse nature of American food and drink makes it hard to describe them as a single thing, but certain threads run through the whole beautiful mess. We’re conflicted. We love our chow in America, but we still harbor doubts about how it measures up to European haute cuisine, even while we harbor extreme suspicions about the latter. Despite these insecurities, we mostly just get out the knife and fork and dig in. The classics are getting a bit stale by now anyway.
Like all former colonies, we Americans have bent foreign traditions to suit our own needs from the very beginning. That’s certainly the same adventurous spirit that energizes craft brewing today. We are re-inventers of ourselves; of food, of art, and of our favorite beverage, beer. Like America itself, craft beer is a sloppy synthesis, a jumbled, passion-soaked, pile of dreams and contradictions—not for the fearful or faint of heart. Personally, I love every drop.
We face a ridiculous bounty of great things to put in our mouths these days. It’s a chore to keep up as the pace seems to be accelerating. So, be advised that for every single beer or toothsome morsel I mention here, there are uncountable numbers of other equally great choices, so don’t forget to get out there and discover what’s happening in your own neighborhood. American Craft Beer Week is loaded with events all over the country, but to get your juices flowing, here are some thoughts on American cuisine and companion brews.
Artisan cheese has a lot in common with craft beer. Both are communities of small, sometimes eccentric producers, driven by passion, determined to put their own unique stamp on European classics—often with stunningly good results. There are so many choices, but here are a couple of fun ones.
Try a bloomy-rind goat cheese, like Capriole Farm’s Piper’s Pyramid or Humboldt Fog, with a substantial but equally earthy Saison, like The Bruery’s Saison Rue, or North Coast Brewing Co.’s Le Merle. These combinations provide a barely civilized explosion of textures and aromas.
Jasper Hill Farms makes an astonishing washed-rind cheese that is encircled by a band of cedar bark—tasting as if it was made by leprechauns—presenting a face full of mossy forest aromas and a golden, gooey heart of cheesy goodness. It pairs perfectly with a mid-strength Brown Ale, like Bell’s Brewery Best Brown Ale or Brooklyn Brewery’s Brown. Together, you get a liquid grilled cheese sandwich, with the beer supplying the toastiness. Pairing IPA’s and blue cheese is such effortless harmony that I’m not going to even bother you with suggestions. You know what you like, just get out there and go for it!
Good ole Southern comfort food wants a pale and genteel beer, but one with some flavor to stand up to the fried chicken, yam pie, and most importantly, gravy. Up North, we have our own classics, like pan-fried walleye and “saasiges” (as we say in Chicago) like bratwurst and kielbasa. Down-home food screams out for a beery-beer, but one with some real character. Houston’s St. Arnold Brewing Co. makes a lovely Kölsch called Fancy Lawnmower that does the job nicely. Wisconsin’s Capital Brewery has their pre-pro-ish Supper Club beer, and both Lagunitas Brewing Co. and Victory Brewing Co. have stupid good Pilsners.
Cajun food ramps up the flavor and heat, and demands a little “mo bettah” in its beer partners. From across Lake Pontchartrain, Abita Brewing Co.’s TurboDog is a standby; Oaktoberfest from Texas’ Live Oak Brewing Co., Rogue Ale’s Dead Guy, and Anderson Valley Brewing Co.’s Boont Amber can all take the heat. Durn good with chili, too!
Elsewhere on the coasts, Anchor Brewing’s Anchor Steam is classic with almost any seafood. Crab and lobster can handle a tad more elegance. In that company, Pike Brewing Co.’s Monk’s Uncle Tripel, or something more exotic, like Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch can stand as proud as any white wine. Stout and raw oysters is textbook old school. Deschutes Brewery’s Obsidian or Sierra Nevada’s Stout paired with the crusty bivalves splashed with mignonette made from chopped shallots, vinegar, and a crack of pepper—divine.
We can’t talk about American food without whomping a hot, gooey slab of barbecue on the table. It’s folk art at a high level; smoke, spice, fat and a bit of tang—wild and uncouth enough to ruin any wine. Kansas City-style spareribs crave an Abbey Dubbel, like Allagash Brewing Co.’s or New Belgium Brewing’s, or an even meatier beer, like Brother Thelonious from North Coast.
Brisket demands something darker and more bitter, like Rogue’s Shakespeare Stout, or Alaskan Brewing Co.’s Smoked Porter—which is astonishingly good with smoked salmon, if you want to take your ‘que in a northwesterly direction.
And for dessert? It was American brilliance and ingenuity that brought the world the deep fried Twinkie, but what to drink? Perhaps something barrel-aged, like the amazing Allagash Curieux, or the equally heady Lost Abbey The Angel’s Share. Better yet, skip the Twinkie and just have the beer as dessert.
Randy Mosher is an author, lecturer and consultant on beer styles and brewing. He is an instructor for the Siebel Institute in Chicago and the author of The Brewers Companion, Radical Brewing and most recently, Tasting Beer. Additionally, Mosher is a brand identity and package design consultant for an international range of clients in the brewing, food and beverage business through his company, Randy Mosher Design.