One of the things that I’m lucky enough to be able to ponder occasionally is beer and food pairing. It’s the kind of thing that I’ve been massively appreciative of in the past, because for the most part, when I experience it, someone else is doing it for me.
I’ve had some of the best meals of my life since I started writing about beer. There’s the annual beer and food pairing dinner at Harbord House. I’ve managed to go to beer dinners at beerbistro, the Monk’s Table and WVRST. I’ve had a vegan meal paired with beer that I found somehow inexplicable. Somewhere in there was a five course beer dinner prepared by Howard Dubrovsky of the now defunct L.A.B. restaurant that was simply incredible.
It’s an interesting situation to be in. It’s very easy to criticize beer and food pairing when someone else does it. It’s also easy to become effusive with praise for something that’s done well. I still periodically wax rhapsodic about a seafood chowder that was paired with Great Lakes’ No Chance With Miranda. It’s easy to be objective about what works and whether a certain component was superfluous when someone else is back in the kitchen wiping the rim of the plate.
(The most successful dinners I’ve been to are in no small part due to the influence of Greg Clow, whose Canadian Beer Dinner series has been particularly ambitious. Go to the next one, why don’t you? It’ll be awesome! This has been a very cheap plug indeed.)
It’s amazing what talented chefs can accomplish when they’re given a specific objective for an evening.
I am not a talented chef. I can cook. A little. Sometimes. Maybe.
I sort of taught myself to cook when I was 17 because the food network was suddenly available. This was back in its heyday when you had shows like Taste with David Rosengarten (who is awesome) and Molto Mario with Mario Batali (Bon vivant and lord of the wooden clog). I shared a particular affinity with Emeril Lagasse, not because he was audience friendly and yelled BAM at things, but because I am a relatively short, chunky man who likes cornbread.
I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I once made a lasagna that got me a marriage proposal. I was flattered, but had to turn the guy down.
I have always been heartened by the words of my Aunt Greta. “If you can read and tell time, you can cook.” The difficulty on the subject of cooking with an eye towards beer and food pairing is that there is a significant dearth of reading material.
Garrett Oliver’s Brewmaster’s Table is one of the most generous reference works you could possibly hope for, with the main body of the text filling nearly 350 pages. The framework for the book is broadly pairing styles of beer to food, and then subsequently giving examples of distinct pairings that would work. Garrett has been doing this for a long time and he’s almost invariably right, to the point where you read a pairing suggestion and it becomes so obvious in retrospect that you can practically convince yourself you’ve seen it before even if you haven’t. Dopplebock and Mexican food? Neato keen.
Plus, it helps that the man can write.
The only qualm I have is that there aren’t specific recipes. There are specific pairings, but you would have to have a fairly strong culinary background to puzzle out exactly how to reap the rewards of the pairings. It’s not really a fault of the book. It challenges you to think.
Going in search of actual recipes (because I need all the help I can get) I came across a copy of The beerbistro Cookbook. I am not sure which bits of that to capitalize. It’s well written and very attractive. Brian Morin and Stephen Beaumont clearly did a great job. There are specific recipes, some of which I have subsequently seen cadged by PR firms creating summer release pairing menus. I can’t prove that, but there’s a bell jingling at the back of my mind.
I have written, recently, mind you, that I find some of the pairing categories on the beerbistro menu to be odd, going so far as to suggest parodic variations such as “manic” and “ingratiating.” This treats with the subject unfairly, for the simple reason that they’re clearly attempting to create a broad range of experience and provoke thought. Plus, the fact that the pairing categories afford some leeway in terms of pricing and force the patron to consider choices carefully is a good thing.
It’s worth remembering that before the beerbistro, there wasn’t much in terms of intentional beer and food pairing in Toronto. If the menu leans heavily towards cuisines from beer culture, it’s partially because they do it so well. It was pioneering. There is a specific vision at work, and it has been influential on a scale wider than Toronto.
For my current purposes, it’s a good starting point. I want to understand how beer and food pairing work on a minute scale. It’s one thing to accept the conventional wisdom of established pairings from the world’s great beer cultures. Of course a Belgian Ale Beef Stew is going to be excellent. It has been excellent for hundreds of years.
It’s just that I don’t eat a lot of Carbonnade Flamande. More often than not I want a Nua Phad Prik or Bulgogi. Something in a Roti? Maybe a Doro Wat? Oaxacan Mole? Spicy lentil Dhal? A stew is an excellent thing, but if I’m left to my own devices, I’m usually not going to slow cook something. I don’t see these foods on offer with craft beer, but this is probably because these are not beer cultures with hundreds of years of trial and error on the subject. I want to figure out can be done about that.
Over the next year, I’m going to post once a week about beer and food pairing. It is going to be sloppy to start with. It is going to be amateurish. It is going to consume a significant chunk of my grocery budget, so I had better not massively screw up. Hopefully, you will learn as much as I do.
Before this is over, I’m going to experiment with creating the entirety of a pairing from scratch. From desiging a recipe to desiging a beer to go with it. That will probably be about a month from mash in to table.
What can I say? Hardcore counts for something.