Beer Chefs—Elevating Craft Beer Culture

By Ryan Farrell

As the adrenaline subsides, pangs of hunger strike. Adam Dulye, executive chef of Monk’s Kettle in San Francisco realizes he hasn’t eaten in hours. He has just finished a long, successful craft beer and food pairing dinner in Vail, Colorado.

A quick look around the kitchen reveals a collection of sushi grade raw fish. Dulye assembles an assortment and grabs a bottle of Steamworks Brewing Company’s Conductor. “Sometime around 1 am,” Dulye says, “we discovered that an Imperial IPA can go great with sushi.” And a new pairing was born.

Many of the world’s great beer pairing ideas surface in the wee hours of the morning. Some ideas, like Dulye’s, present themselves in a moment of spontaneous taste-bud clarity, grounded in the fundamentals of pairing food and drink. For others, like Chef Schuyler Schultz, who has a background in food and wine pairing, craft beer’s diverse flavor profiles serve as inspiration. For Sean Paxton, a vast homebrewing experience feeds the curiosity to explore craft beer’s flavor as part of his recipes. Whatever the source, these chefs share a passion for unique and innovative flavors, a passion that naturally links them to American craft brewers.

Beer and Food Pairing Basics

Dulye’s late night discovery serves as great example of beer as a contrasting element. Most beer pairings aim to either complement or contrast the accompanying food. This concept is at work when we enjoy even the simplest food and drink combinations: a cold glass of milk complements warm chocolate chip cookies; a cold, sugary glass of soda contrasts a slice of hot, salty pizza.

Imagine forgoing the thinly sliced ginger, traditionally used to cleanse the palate between bites of sushi, and instead awakening the palate with the citrusy hop bitterness of a big Imperial IPA. The big hop character and smooth alcohol flavor contrast the simple, elegant flavor of the raw fish without entombing it. The beer’s carbonation helps clear the palate.

This sensory renewal is akin to emerging from a movie theatre after a matinee. Your eyes have adjusted to the darkness of the theatre, and when you leave, the day’s light is more brilliant than before. The fifth bite of Maguro dipped lightly in soy sauce is not as intense as your first. But, after a few sips of a clean, crisp IPA, the delicate flavor of the salty fish is once again bright on your palate.

But never mind the metaphors. Adam emphasizes that the most important consideration when building your own beer and food pairing is “to have fun and create your own opinions.” He encourages craft beer enthusiasts to keep an independent spirit and remember that each individual’s tasting perception is different.

“Just because a chef recommends a specific pairing does not mean that it will work out the exact same way for you, and that’s ok,” said Dulye. “If you don’t taste what they were talking about, don’t search for that flavor or comparison, but instead, focus on what you taste and form your own opinion.”

If craft beer lovers adopt that same spirit, Dulye believes they “could stumble upon the next big pairing trend.”

Putting Beer in the Dining Room

The popularity of craft beer and food paired dinners is growing almost as quickly as the craft beer industry itself. For many, these dinners serve as a great introduction to the wide variety of beer and food pairings. Chefs also use them to refine their approach to pairing, as they provide a platform for chefs who are passionate about craft beer to test their latest creations and refine their approach to pairing.

Chef Schuyler Schultz, culinary director of AleSmith Brewing Company—a title that itself points to the zeitgeist of matching beer with food—hosted his first beer and food paired dinner in 2008 at the Sonoma Cellar in Las Vegas. He had coordinated several high-end wine dinners, but he wanted to expose people to the amazing things that innovative craft brewers were doing.

He was drawn to craft beer by its “hugely diverse array of flavors.” Schultz recalls tasting “the bright, citrus, fresh-cut grass and pine needle tones” of a west coast IPA and how it “made [him] think about fresh cilantro, basil, yuzu, kumquats, tangerine zest and chilies.” As he grew to appreciate the quality and complexity of American craft beer, he recognized that the best craft beers were on par with far more expensive wines, and that craft beer “needed an advocate” in the world of fine dining.

Indeed, scores of craft beer advocates have been coming together at Schultz’s AleSmith dinners, as well as other beer and food pairing events, such as SAVOR: An American Craft Beer & Food Experience, which will celebrate its third anniversary in Washington, DC this June. Duyle of Monk’s Kettle in San Francisco and Teddy Folkman of Granville Moore’s in DC have collaborated on the 2011 SAVOR menu.

SAVOR’s menu boasts more than 40 dishes paired with beers from 70 American craft brewers. The event also features an artisan cheese table with everything from California’s Maytag Blue to Vermont’s Double Cream Cremont; and an oyster bar hosted by Choptank Oyster Company. Not only is craft beer present in the dining room at SAVOR, it serves as the backbone of this dining experience.

Putting Beer in the Kitchen

Sean Paxton, also known as The Homebrew Chef, has earned a reputation for creating integrated craft beer and food pairings by including the beer itself in his recipes. He says, “All recipes include a liquid. You have to ask yourself, ‘What is that liquid doing? What liquid best fits the course?” Instead of smoking pastrami for a sausage, he cooks it in a Smoked Porter. Rather than include bananas in the cream of a banana cream pie, he combines the cream with a Hefeweizen with strong banana notes.

Paxton’s pace mirrors that of his industry; he speaks quickly and excitedly, moving from idea to idea, from one recipe to the next. But like all good explorers, Paxton proceeds with caution amidst the excitement. He uses the example of cooking with an IPA, saying, “As you cook with hoppy beer, you alter the IBU content because hop oil does not evaporate,” and if you’re not careful, the end product can be overly bitter.

He expects the next steps for the industry to be “really focused literature to help people understand the research and development and to develop protocol.” Consistency is a valuable and often underappreciated tool, both in the kitchen and the brewery. Paxton believes that the industry will benefit from standardization of the practices involved in cooking with beer.

Protocol or not, Paxton, his fellow chefs, and craft beer lovers everywhere will push forward, map-less, into the ever-expanding frontier of American craft beer and food.

Try these suggested pairings from Schuyler Shultz

  • Mixed green salads with bitter chicories and aromatic herbs in a light vinaigrette complement an IPA.
  • Roasted, caramelized root vegetables with sweet potatoes, winter squash, and fingerling potatoes have the depth of flavor to complement a bold Porter.
  • Braised greens like chard, collards, kale, and mustard greens can be matched with nearly anything, but try complementing them with an Amber Ale.
  • Grilled, marinated eggplant, summer squash, onions, and heirloom cherry tomatoes contrast nicely with a malty Scotch Ale or a strong Red Ale.
  • Cauliflower, romanesco broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are all fantastic slightly charred in a sauté pan with brown butter. The nutty, slightly mustardy flavors contrast Belgian beers with complex, spicy fermentation profiles.
Photo © Jason E. Kaplan

Ryan FarrellRyan Farrell is the Finance Assistant and a contributor at the Brewers Association. He earned his degree in English at the College of William and Mary and has been with the Brewers Association since 2007. When he is not balancing the books, he enjoys tilting the pen on all subjects craft beer.