When I was working closely with Alan McLeod from A Good Beer Blog on writing Ontario Beer (See right! Buy one for a friend! Buy a dozen!) one of the things that we would disagree on periodically was beer and food pairing. Alan more or less believes that the entire practice of beer and food pairing as it stands is a load of old cobblers. He also believed that the Blue Jays were going to choke. He’s a useful guy to have around because he’s full of enthusiasms, but skeptical of mass enthusiasms.
It is easy to be skeptical of beer and food pairing because so much of it is cribbed from other sources. If you, like Alan, grew up around good food in a family that actually talked about what went into dishes and what you should be eating for lunch, then pairing beverages with it comes sort of naturally. In fact, I don’t think that I’m misrepresenting his stance when I say that he thinks it’s just something you should be able to do. Why all the hubbub, bub?
Well, the fact is that not everyone has that gastronomic ability. I guess it’s like speaking French. I know I have studied it a little bit, but I can guarantee I’d be fluent if I’d grown up in Quebec.
In my experience, professional cooks tend not to be very good with beer pairing. Around Toronto, we have a few who are very good: David Lee from Nota Bene, Howard Dubrovsky, Jesse Vallins from The Saint, Brook Kavanagh to name a few. They are more or less the exception to the rule.
Cooks, I am given to understand, tend to view beer as a utilitarian beverage that marks the end of a shift. They enjoy beer, they drink a bunch of beer, but it doesn’t occupy the mental space for them that wine does. These are people who work very hard and probably don’t have the time to get into the ephemera surrounding beer. When you think about the amount of information you have to process in order to run a kitchen, you can understand why a bunch of professional cooks tend to stick with cheap, reliable beers they don’t have to think about when it comes to preference. Simply put, in a lot of cases, there is neither the time nor the inclination; just the desire for a can of beer so cold that it tacks to your hand.
Now, I also know from experience that the beer writers tend to get a little shirty when Beppi Crossariol from the Globe and Mail, a wine writer, reviews beer. Sure he’s usually right, but that’s not the point. Beer writers tend to possess endless reams of information in the form of minute detail about styles and provenance and history. I’m not sure how many of us are actually able to apply that in detail to food pairing. The real issue is that there’s a growing set of knowledge on the topic that contains information both good and bad. I have seen beer cookbooks that are informative and useful (David Ort’s Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook) and some that are best left unmentioned. I have seen a couple of books on the theory behind beer and food pairing. I notice that the literature on the subject is iterative. People read the previous books and add a little to their own version.
Given those problems, I can see that Alan has a point. If you were actually raised to think about pairing food and beverages at home on a daily basis, you’d be right to be dismissive.
Let me tell you about the best beer and food event I went to this year. It was at Taste of Toronto and was organized by the fine people at Pilsner Urquell. They had brought in something like a dozen kegs of Tankova, which is the unpasteurized version of Pilsner Urquell. It is creamier than the canned version, with a deeper, more satisfying hop character. It is somehow more herbal. It’s the genuine article. It explains a lot about why people tried to emulate pilsners in the United States historically.
The food was organized by Grant Van Gameren from Bar Isabel. Bar Isabel has a reputation for bringing the friendly cuisine of San Sebastian in the Basque region of the Bay of Biscay to Toronto. The spread that he put on was incredible. It included more or less every kind of tapas ingredient you can think of from anchovies to capers and pepperoncini to blood sausage. There were escabeched quail’s eggs. There were cockles that, if Jesus owned a cannery, would have fit the bill. I ate more jamon than I am really comfortable admitting.
The idea was to select ingredients and place them on bread in order to make pinchos, which is more or less a customizable crostini with carefully chosen condiments. There was a competition to create the best pinchos as a table, but I think everyone was more interested in eating food you usually only get to see in an Anthony Bourdain travelogue and standing around luxuriating in the mid-afternoon summer sun and drinking one of the best beers in the world.
What did I learn from the event? That expensive, high quality beer and expensive, high quality salty snacks go well together.
To be honest with you, I had grokked that knowledge previously.
It is my goal over the next year or so to help broaden the base of knowledge available about beer and food pairing. I will almost certainly overcomplicate things and I will almost certainly fail frequently, especially if I try to sous-vide something. Hopefully, by the end of this experience, we will all know more than we did.