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Libations: Brewtopian dining

Learn about the latest gastronomy trend of pairing beer with food. Craig Pinhey matches classic dishes with top Atlantic Canadian brews.

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Wine isn’t the only food accompaniment—pairing beer with food is gaining momentum.

The concept of matching beer with food is relatively new in North America, trailing the wine-and-food-pairing trend. It’s not that there is anything strange or difficult about drinking beer with fine cuisine. The problem has been a lack of education.

Until the mid-1980s, you just couldn’t find a diverse range of beer. In the last two decades, the microbrew revolution has changed the landscape of ale and lager, evolving our beer culture. Fascinating new beer brands now pop up regularly.

Breweries in Atlantic Canada are not only paying attention to this trend, they are among its leaders. A terrific example is Halifax’s
Garrison Brewing Company. Over the last five years, it’s released a string of bottled ales with diverse flavours, including Imperial India Pale Ale, Ol’ Fog Burner Barley Wine, Sugar Moon Maple, Grand Baltic Porter, and its most recent, Spruce Beer. That’s a little different from simply ale and lager, providing plenty of options for food matching.

Complex beers can work with any meal a chef creates. Beer and food dinners are becoming popular, giving rise to a new profession: the cicerone. The cicerone educational  program is spreading throughout North America, reflecting the increasing interest in diverse beer. Essentially a beer sommelier, a cicerone takes courses in beer preparation, learning how to evaluate, store and serve beer properly and also how to pair it with food.

There are basic principles for matching beer with food. Unsurprisingly, they mirror those for wine: lighter beer with lighter foods;
full-bodied or more structured beer with heartier meals. While most books on wine and food pairing provide exact wine suggestions, the beer suggestions normally fall flat and often fail to distinguish between types of beer. Some books will discern between ale and lager but that’s like saying there are only two types of wine: red and white.

A seminal book that all beer lovers should have is Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion (published by HarperCollins Canada, Running Press in 1993 but since updated). Jackson, now deceased, was a respected beer and whisky writer. His book was one of the first texts exploring beer and food matching. There are plenty of other resources available now, including Garrett Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table (Ecco). But Jackson’s book was one of the first making a convincing case for beer as an alternative to wine.

With some sour exceptions (lambics, Flemish sour brown/red ales, Berliner weiss), beer tends to lack the acidity that is a cornerstone of wine’s affinity with many foods. Instead of acid, beer has bitterness from hops that helps cleanse the palate. With that in mind, a bitter Czech or German pils serves the same purpose with seafood as a crisp Chablis or Sauvignon Blanc.

Similarly, a hoppy English bitter works well with fish-and-chips or meat pies with a high fat content. The refreshing bitterness sweeps the oiliness away.

The flavour of hops echoes that of mint, anise, coriander and other herbs, making certain hoppy ales a natural match for Asian cuisine. West Coast North American hops, such as cascade, impart strong grapefruit and floral character, giving another tool for food pairing. They are the beer equivalent of Gewurztraminer or Viognier, popular wines for Thai and Indian cuisine, or of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

With that in mind, you could pair West Coast India Pale Ale with East Indian curry. It is a good match analytically and historically, as this ale style developed when England shipped ale to their soldiers in India.

Like wine, many ales are very fruity, particularly Belgian ales, due to the type of yeast they contain and fermentation temperature. Belgians treat their strong fruity Abbey ales like wine, serving them with thoughtful cuisine and excellent cheeses.

Roasted malt in beer gives similar flavours and aromas of oak-aged wines, such as caramel, maple and nuts. This explains why dark British ale, like an ESB (Extra Special Bitter), goes well with the flavours of roasted meat and vegetables.

Using these various food and beer commonalities in aroma and flavour and an open mind, a beer-savvy cook can create an exciting menu using Atlantic Canadian beers. Here’s a sample seven-course meal featuring some of our region’s best beers. Note that this list includes beer available by the bottle or by the growler. However, there are other beers available on draft at your favourite brewpubs and beer-friendly pubs that could work equally well.

First course
Food: Greeting appetizers of finger foods, including mini salt-cod fishcakes, pear slices wrapped in prosciutto and smoked salmon canapés.
Beer match: Propeller Hefeweizen, Halifax,
Bavarian style weissbier is generally thought of as the Champagne of beer, as it is very fizzy and refreshing. Like Champagne, it goes with pretty much everything and makes a great greeting beverage. The Propeller version has a nice amount of clove and banana, originating from the yeast strain, alongside a lemony citrus character. They also make a seasonal filtered Kristall Weizen version, which has less intense yeast aromas.

Second course
Food: Salad of micro greens with slices of local goat cheese rolled in candied pine nuts, served with MacIntosh apple slices in honey-and-grapefruit dressing.
Beer match: Garrison Hopyard Pale Ale, Halifax,
A West Coast style pale ale, this beer is dry with lots of floral and citrus notes from the hops, as well as a refreshing bitterness. Hopyard is the beer equivalent to an extreme New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which would also go well with this dish. The citrusy hops play off of the vinaigrette, the malt pairs with the nuts and the bitterness cleanses the palate.

Third course
Food: Indian curry and toasted coconut encrusted chicken wings.
Beer match: Gahan House Island Red Amber Ale, Charlottetown, P.E.I.,
An unabashedly malty ale, its nutty caramel flavours match the coconut and cooked meat. It has enough sweetness to kill the heat of the dish and enough hop complexity to compete with the curry spice. A real twist on wing-and-beer night.

Palate cleanser
Blueberry Granite, a small scoop of frozen ice crystals made with Pump House Blueberry Ale, Moncton, N.B.,

Fifth course
Food: Fish and chips with tempura halibut and housemade P.E.I. potato chips
Beer match: Picaroon Best Bitter, Fredericton, N.B.,
Picaroons’ flagship beer, it’s an English-style bitter with lots of fruity esters and pleasant caramel malt flavours balanced with medium-high bitterness. This match is a regional/traditional one not based on science, but it works because the
bitterness cleanses the palate of the fishy, oily flavours between bites.

Sixth course
Food: Lamb pie with roasted parsnips, turnips and carrots in a rosemary and Peculiar gravy.
Beer match: Granite Brewery Peculiar, Halifax, (purchased as a growler from the brewery).
A strong, dark ale with lots of fruitiness and dark roasted malt flavours, balanced with hops but very smooth and easy to drink. The malt goes well with the cooked lamb and caramelized parsnips, while the herbal English hops complement the rosemary and roasted root vegetables. Using the beer in the gravy ties it all together.

Seventh course
Food: Dark chocolate truffles with raspberry filling
Beer match: Storm Coffee Porter, St. John’s, N.L.,
This is a rather obvious pairing but it can be tricky. You don’t want the truffles to be too sweet, as that will emphasize the bitterness of the black malts too much. Use dark chocolate and go easy on the sugar.

Recommended References:
The Brewmaster’s Table, Garrett Oliver (Ecco, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.)
Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion (Harper Collins, Running Press)
Taste Buds and Molecules, François Chartier (McClelland & Stewart)

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