Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Pairings: shocking the masses, forcing beer into wine territory

This evening I was reading though the summer issue of the Raley's/Bel Air/Nob Hill ad-magazine, Something Extra. Yeah, it's really just one giant ad for products stocked at those stores, but it usually has some damn good (and season-appropriate) recipes, and some fairly decent food writing. This edition of the magazine features a fluff piece on wine and pairings, briefly profiling six wine varieties and offering suggested pairings with summer foods (think grilled items & salads). There's nothing wrong with what information it does offer - from what I can tell, it is all accurate, and certainly useful. It does, however, remind me of the dominance of wine when it comes to pairing beverage with food. The wine industry aggressively plays up wine's potential to compliment food, and the food industry, at all levels, ranging from producers to restaurants to grocers, plays along in a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship. This shouldn't be a problem... But I ask, "what about beer?"

If you've ever developed the courage to try some craft beer, you know that beer offers a wider range of flavors than SAB-Miller, Molson-Coors, and Anheuser-Busch would have you believe. If you've been a little more adveturous, you may have realized that beer offers an exceedingly wide range of flavors, from the sweet to the bitter, from the tannic to the sour, from the floral to the spicy, from the smoky to funky, from the metallic to the minty, and let's not forget roastiness... This huge range of flavor offers innumerable options that can, IMO, more appropriately and thoroughly pair with numerous foods than can the more limitedly ranged wine.

You see, wine, no matter what lengths food-writers might go to in order to describe "hints of vanilla," "bing cherry," or the all too ambiguous "spice," usually offers two, and only two, prominent flavors, with one possible alternate. Most wines offer sweetness and sourness (acidity). Reds can also offer a tannic (mildly bitter) character. These are the only major flavors that will carry through and interact with food.

Beer, meanwhile can offer sweetness, sourness, tannicness, as well as intense hop bitterness, smokiness, and huge range of additional flavors. Beer also offers a wider range of mouthfeel than that offered by wine, ranging from viscous and flat to bone-dry and effervescent. And while beer, like wine, can play the "contrast" game - this is what you will see happening in most pairings - beer can often also compliment food, echoing the flavors of the food. C'mon, do you really want a Syrah with your smoked brisket when you could have a Smoked Porter in its place, building on the smokiness yet cutting away the fat, and thus intensifying the whole experience?

So, to stop my bitching and start being proactive, I think I will now, and perhaps occasionally hereafter, offer some potential beer-food pairings. For the first installment, I'll go with two pairings that are exceedingly simple, but also very, very good. First, the beer style in question: India Pale Ale, aka IPA.

IPAs are simplistic beers. Are they unsophisticated? No. But the statement they make, and their method, they are both simplistic, though strong. These beers are simply a forum for that glorious bit of flora, the hop. IPAs are where hops step out of their supporting role in the production that is beer, and step into the spotlight. Nothing more than slightly beefed-up and over-hopped pale ales, IPAs present an intense bitterness, with a chorus of hop flavor and aroma that change, based on the hop variety. They can be citrusy, spicy, minty, piney, floral, or earthy. Depending on the interpretation, they can also be bone-dry, or have some residual sweetness to balance out the hops. Recommended commercial example? Go with Anderson Valley's Hop Ottin' IPA - it's a quintessential, over-the-top California IPA. If your on the East Coast, go west, I say - they just don't know how to make IPAs back there...

Now, being a relatively simplistic and aggressive beer style, IPA would seem to present some significant difficulties when it comes to food pairings. However, two of my absolute beverage-food pairings do involve IPAs. The first of these is the painfully obvious pizza and beer.

Yes, pizza and beer. Or more specifically, pizza and IPA. You see, most any pizza you try, whether it be from that nose-upturned wood-fired place in the hot shopping district, the Domino's in the ghetto, or that weird mom & pop place around the corner, will A. be greasy (at least mildly), and B. have a sweet red sauce involved somewhere. Both the grease (fat) and the sweetness provide excellent elements for the IPA to play off of. IPAs offer the raw bitterness of the alpha acids, plus a small amount of tannins due to the sheer amount of vegetable matter to which the beer is exposed. The bitterness from these two elements cuts through both the fat and the sweetness of the pizza. In contrast, the pizza seems sweeter and greasier, and the bitterness of the beer comes across more pleasantly as it seems to have a purpose. The two play off of each other and enhance each other. It's a simple beer, and a simple pairing, but this clash of titans is a wonder to behold as it plays out on your palate.

The second IPA pairing I would recommend is a bit more unexpected - a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I'm serious here - it's one of the best pairings I've ever had. You see, peanut butter and jelly has two major components - the sweetness of the jelly and the mouth-coating fat of the peanut butter. The sandwich itself is a pairing, with the jelly added to make the peanut butter's mouthfeel a bit more tolerable. The addition of an IPA takes it a step further. You see, the basic bitterness of an IPA interacts with the sweetness of the jelly - they contrast and augment each other. But then the other element of the hops, the tannins, come into play not as bitterness, but as mouthfeel. You see, tannins feel "sharp" in the mouth, and they can "clean away" things that seem to coat the mouth, such as mashed potatoes or - drumroll - peanut butter. And that's what makes this pairing so interesting to me - there's a two-front battle being waged. We have sweet vs. bitter and viscous vs. sharp. And that's not something you're likely to find in wine pairings, as wines tend only to play up one of their three major components, and thus are capable of waging only one battle at a time.

So for now, I'll step off my soapbox. But I will continue to, intermittently, advocate for beer, especially for its use as a compliment to food.


At 4:27 PM, Blogger brenda said...

So does that mean you'll pair an IPA with anything that is sweet and fatty?

At 7:13 PM, Blogger Zac said...

I haven't yet found a sweet and fatty that I don't like with an IPA. But I should note that something really sweet, like big, red-sauce Southern Italian pasta, is just about the only area I conceed to wine in terms of pairings. If it's red-sauce Southern Italian, go with a beefy red wine. But if you're going white sauce, by all means, have a beer...

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Ben, aka BadBen said...

IPA's go good with salty food, as well.


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