Think back to the last craft beer and food pairing you had, whether at home or at a restaurant, how many of your senses were awakened? One? Two? How about all five? Over the last few years, the number of craft beers available has grown at an indescribable pace, and alongside that, beer and beer-centric dining options have popped up in almost every city.
So how do you decipher which place will awaken and inspire all of your senses; which place will create a memory you seek to repeat? Of the many questions, one-liners, thoughts and suggestions that have come my way over the last few years—from guests to critics—here are a few that will help decode and guide you to beer and food pairing harmony.
Question: How do I find a place that successfully pairs beer and food?
Next time you find yourself searching for a place to grab a beer and a bite, compare the menu to the beer list. Do they appear to have a symbiotic relationship or did the chef write a menu and someone else order some beer? This simple question is often overlooked, mainly because so many stop short of searching both menus. If you see a beer you want to try, and order it without first looking at the food menu, you have just lost your chance to create a sensory experience. You are now on your way to satisfying two normal feelings—hunger and thirst. You will walk away with your hunger quieted and your thirst quenched, nothing more.
Three quick indicators of establishments with beer and food menus that “talk” to each other:
- The food menu offers craft beer and food pairing suggestions.
- The beer menu provides more than just the name of the beer: brewery name, state brewed, ABV, pour size, beer style.
- Both the beer and food menus change together more than a few times per year.
Thought: Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
All too often after starting a conversation, many people will throw out some version of “I was afraid to ask that.” The key to opening the door and getting knowledgeable answers lies in re-wording the simplest questions. In other words, instead of asking “What’s your favorite beer?” (which is sure to get a crowd pleasing response), try re-wording that to “What would you drink off the draught list today?” If you give some form of guidance towards the answer you will begin to go down the road of opening new and exciting pairings.
More often than not, you will find chefs, brewers and bartenders are more than happy to engage in conversation about their livelihood. The second part to wading through the questions lies in waiting for the opportune moment. If it is a busy time and you feel you are being “in the way” with your questions, know that this is simply not the case. Try reading a book and mowing the lawn at the same time and you might get a glimpse of what a busy shift can feel like at any establishment. If you find yourself here, do not be afraid to ask for a business card and continue the conversation over email.
Suggestion: I read about a pairing and I am trying to replicate it, but I don’t taste what it says I am supposed to taste.If it is written or said that you should smell notes of oak, hints of winter spice and honey, and you come up with something completely different, do not immediately second guess yourself. Don’t miss your own pairing experience trying to find someone else’s. What you taste, smell and feel are uniquely your own. Go with that. Enjoy your own experience. Most importantly do not shy away from sharing what you experience. You may spark the same in someone else, and at the very least a conversation has begun and memories will be stirred amongst all to search for their own experiences.
Question: What do you do when a pairing does not work?
Yes, this does happen. Without trial and error you will not grow. When a pairing does not work, focus on what specifically made it fail, and what would be a possible answer to change the experience. In some cases, there is that simple fix of a touch of that, a touch of this and from that you learn the nuances that can take a failed pairing to a successful match.
Then there are the pairings that fail worse than your high school prom. Think, what if the beer actually made the dish spicier and hotter than anyone could handle (yes, there are beers that make spices hotter). Other than learning that maybe this is how salt got on some rims of beer glasses, have fun with it. Do not let a failed pairing ruin your experience.
One-liner: It is what it is.
At the end of the day it is just beer and food. It is just one meal, but if that one meal, that one pairing comes through and awakens all five senses, well then that is what it is too. And that is awesome. And the dance goes on. Cheers!
Adam Dulye is the chef at The Monk’s Kettle and the upcoming restaurant The Abbot’s Cellar in San Francisco. Adam also heads up the culinary program and Farm to Table Pavilion at the Great American Beer Festival.
Last Updated: September 7, 2011