Beer and pretzels. Specifically, a big American stout and some hard and salty sourdough pretzels. This is my perfect food pairing. Why? Well, because I think they taste good together. It’s as simple as that. Okay, maybe it has something to do with the rock salt on the pretzels complementing the rich chocolate malt in the stout, but that’s not what I was thinking the first time I grabbed a bag of pretzels to munch on with my beer. A great deal of fuss is made over trying to pair foods with beverages, with the fine-dining world establishing stipulations about what should and should not be consumed with particular dishes. But does it really matter? For craft beer enthusiasts lately, it certainly seems important.
From prix-fixe beer-pairing dinners to expanding beer lists at fine dining restaurants, the idea of pairing beer with food is gaining traction. “I think the sudden beer pairing craze is due to the rising popularity of craft beer in general, and people are finally realizing that beer can be a suitable match for food,” says Brian Strumke, creator of Stillwater Artisanal Ales. Strumke’s inventive and nuanced ales are the perfect example of a new breed of craft beer that is making culinary minds second-guess wine as the ultimate pairing tool.
“The term ‘craft beer’ is still too broad to lump all micro-brewed beers together. I know personally I designed the Stillwater portfolio to be more competitive with wine on the dinner table rather than other beers,” says Strumke. The ability to create such a wide range of flavor profiles, textures, and alcohol content makes beer an extremely versatile weapon for complementing food. This immense versatility, however, brings along with it a daunting number of options for the consumer. But maybe if we could understand why we enjoy eating certain foods with certain beverages the best choices for our individual palates would become clearer.
One school of thought on the matter can be found in classical culinary tradition. As a former server, I’ve been through the “professional” food-and-beverage pairing courses. I’ve spent time memorizing menus and pairing off wines-by-the-glass and draft beers with each dish, parroting seemingly well-founded explanations and combinations back to the customer. After a few times through the script, however, I started to notice a trend. When it came time to actually make a suggestion, it seemed to me all I had to do was to suggest a beverage that actually tasted good, and ninety-nine percent of the time the patron would be lauding me as a culinary genius minutes later. I quickly learned the importance of suggestion, all the while growing quite skeptical about this idea of food and beverage pairing rules.
This skepticism is the reason why a recent event put on by the Monell Chemical Senses Center and Yards Brewery as part of the Philadelphia Science Festival caught my eye. The event was titled “Beer Chemistry: Perfect Pairings,” and was based on the idea that science can explain why certain foods taste good with certain beers. As a biomedical engineer by education, if there was anything that could dispel my skepticism, it was cold, hard science. Sure enough, after attending, I’ve gained a new perspective on how to pair beer with my food.
The night’s host was Dr. Marcia Pelchat, a researcher at Monell who introduced several stations set up throughout Yards’ brewery that demonstrated fundamental biological principles that govern how we perceive pairings. A great deal of emphasis was placed on understanding the differences between taste and flavor. “Taste arises from the receptors on the tongue. There are only a handful of taste qualities including sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Flavor is multi sensory. Its two major components are taste and smell,” says Dr. Pelchat. Eliminating the factor of aroma creates a simplified way to look at foods and beverage pairings that can be applied almost universally. Of course, personal preference is still important. As Dr. Pelchat puts it, “Everyone has a unique sensory world.” If you put some trust in biology, however, there are a few fundamental principles that can come in handy when thinking about what to drink with your next meal.
Maybe if we could understand why we enjoy eating certain foods with certain beverages, the best choices for our individual palates would become clearer.
A common issue arises when attempting to pick a pairing for a salty meal. Since salty foods intensify thirst, water seems like the most reasonable pairing partner, but come on, water? An alcoholic solution can be found by applying a traditional trick of the culinary trade. Bitter foods like dark chocolate, eggplant, coffee, and grapefruit have typically been tamed by the addition of salt. This erases the bitter qualities of these foods, bringing out their underlying flavors and hidden sweetness, all without ever making them actually taste salty. If we break up the bitter and salty components into a food and a drink, we have a pairing rule that science can explain: A bitter beverage will be enhanced by the addition of salty foods, and salty foods will seem less harsh when consumed with a bitter beverage. While the exact mechanism behind this interaction is not known, it’s generally theorized that the sodium ions created in the mouth when eating salty foods block our palate’s receptors for bittering agents. This phenomenon makes my love for pretzels and stouts make perfect sense: the salt from the pretzels softens the bitter chocolate malt flavors of the stout revealing the full range of flavor in the beer while at the same time taking the salty edge off of the pretzels. Even my seemingly simple snack preference can be explained by fundamental science.
Another useful chemical interaction is the interplay between acid and fatty foods. Tannic acid and lactic acid are compounds commonly found in beer. You’ve most likely heard of tannic acid in wine descriptions, as it’s mostly known as the chemical in grape skins that dries out the sides of your mouth. Lactic acid on the other hand is a byproduct of lactobacillus, a bacteria that brewers use in certain styles to invoke sourness. These acids bind to proteins in saliva, causing it to lose its lubricating qualities. This interaction dries out your mouth, rendering your taste buds useless. Fatty foods, however, are the perfect compensation. Fat, oil, and butter can act as salivary stand-ins, lubricating your mouth and rejuvenating your taste buds. When consumed together, the distracting astringency of the beer and fattiness of the food are reduced, opening up your palate to the flavors hidden within each component. While wine is the obvious choose for an acidic beverage, classic Belgian sour styles such as Gueuze or Flemish red ales will produce the same effect when put up against a butter-laden fat-streaked steak.
These are just two of the millions of scientific principles that govern how we perceive taste. While each individual concept is fairly simple, the network of interconnecting reactions creates an endlessly complex web that defines our personal preferences. Really, there’s no way of predicting our personal preferences in food and drink pairings. Science can explain some aspects, but it’s certainly not an all-encompassing answer. My advice is to be experimental and not get too caught up in the rules of pairing. Brian Strumke sums it up rather nicely, stating, “It’s the responsibility of the consumer to understand his or her own palate.” Try out some of your favorite beers with different dishes and you’ll quickly learn what pairings your taste buds prefer.
Here are some recommendations I’ve come up with based on the two pairing principles I described above. Remember, these are just my suggestions that I’ve come up with based on science and my own taste buds. There’s no telling whether or not they’ll work for your unique palate. I encourage you to disagree. Really, who am I to tell you what you’ll like?
FOR SALTY FOODS
San Diego, CA. 9.5% ABV. $10 for 22 ounces
With a name like Palate Wrecker, you may think that this double IPA is the last thing you’d want to enjoy with food. In actuality, its intense bitterness and abundance of tropical fruit characteristics would be well tamed by a healthy dose of salt.
Kansas City, MS. 9.7% ABV $12 for a 4-pack
This imperial stout is loaded with dark chocolate bitterness and balanced by a unique and fruity Belgian yeast strain. The result is a beer that could be a perfect after-dinner sipper or a complement to just about any salty snack.
FOR BITTER FOODS
Leipzig, Germany, 4.6% ABV. $5 for 11.2 ounces
Gose is an uncommon and unusual German wheat based style that is traditionally brewed with the addition of coriander and salt. These unlikely additions will provide enough spice and sodium to balance out bitter greens like radicchio or arugula. Bayerischer Bahnhof’s standard Leipziger Gose is the most accessible traditional gose distributed outside of Germany.
FOR FATTY FOODS
Philadelphia, PA. 6.3% ABV. $10 for a six-pack
Yards ESA is brewed in the traditional English bitter style. The name is quite misleading, as these ales are actually not very bitter, but do have a good bit of astringency. This tannic quality would play very nicely with dishes loaded with butter and oil.
Freising, Germany, 4.1% ABV. $6 for 500mL
The German Berliner Weisbier style describes a wheat ale fermented with the addition of Lactobacillus, the bacteria that produces lactic acid as a byproduct. The sharp and tangy citrus notes in the cult-classic 1809 will cut through just about any fat that stands in its way.
Santa Rosa, CA. 10% ABV. $19 for 375mL
Cabernet sauvignon is the king of American tannins and Russian River Brewing Company’s Consecration is the king of American tannic beers. This dark Belgian inspired ale is aged in cabernet sauvignon barrels with currants and a splendid array of wild yeast and bacteria. The result is a pungent blend of tannic acid qualities from the barrel and lactic acid qualities from the bacteria creating a perfect storm of sharp acid that would be well balanced by a fatty steak.
Illustrations by Mackenzie Anderson