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Beer and Food: Estrella Taqueria

“Try it with Mexican Food.”

This was the food pairing recommendation on a press release for a bottle of beer I got last year. I can’t remember which bottle exactly and it doesn’t matter very much. One of the things that many beer companies are guilty of when it comes to food pairing suggestions is inspecificity.

This is Mexico

It is the 14th largest country in the world at about 2 million square kilometers. It’s got about 120 million residents. It is big enough that the different regions all have their own cuisines. The cuisines are mostly derived from Aztec and Mayan traditions with a good deal of Spanish influence.

“Try it with Mexican Food.”

If you, as a brewer, are convinced that your beer is good enough that it will heighten the sensory experience of a meal, you owe it to the person buying your beer not to make them use a dartboard to narrow it down. Did you mean tamales or mole sauce or barbacoa or chalupas or what? Be specific. If you put “Try it with French Food” on your label, Escoffier’s spectre would come back to haunt you with a ghostly whisk. You can’t adopt the airs of gourmet sophistication and then just wave vaguely in the direction of Latin America.

For heaven’s sake, if you mean tacos, just write tacos. That narrows it down a little bit. More than likely, what you mean specifically is the Old El Paso taco kit with the luminescent neon ground beef seasoning packet. It’s the standardized ersatz version of the experience.

That’s fine if it’s Thursday and you’re in grade 11. This is Toronto and we’re adults, more or less.

I kept meaning to look for Glottis

I kept meaning to look for Glottis

You’ve got some options for tacos in Toronto at the moment and the newest one is Estrella Taqueria up at Yonge and Sheppard. That may sound like an odd place to open a Taqueria, but it makes sense when you consider that it’s at a junction of two subway lines and that the population at Yonge and Sheppard is young and multicultural. This is a good thing to remember if you’re a beer rep. The city does not end at Bloor.344

It makes more sense when you realize that the place is going to clean up as a bar. The feel is Dia de Muertos with vibrant colours scattered throughout. The owners are taking the thing seriously, having hired set designers and graffiti artists to instill a sense of occasion. They’ve got a rooftop patio that should be fantastic during the summer. They’ve got fifty varieties of Tequila and twenty five varieties of Bourbon. Most interestingly to me, they’ve got a pretty eclectic selection of beer available on draught and in bottles.343

Essentially, what this means is that there’s a place with punchy, flavourful tacos and a wide number of beers to choose from. If you’re interested in pairing beer with food, this is an excellent playground and a pretty good place to go with a group of people who want to try a bunch of different things.

When you break the taco down to its core components, it’s pretty clear that it’s simply a format. There are conventions for fillings, but it’s a good place to get a little creative. You could go authentic and use lingua as a cheap cut. You could go Baja and go with lightly battered fish. You could do just about anything with the filling. At Estrella, they’re running the gamut and it’s pretty clear that the menu is going to be in flux while the chef follows his inspiration and they develop some house favorites.

I suspect that when Harvey Keitel said "I'm hungry, let's get a taco." he didn't have oysters in mind. Still...

I suspect that when Harvey Keitel said “I’m hungry, let’s get a taco.” he didn’t have oysters in mind. Still…

Take the Oyster Taco, for instance. Cornmeal battered oysters with miso/celeriac remoulade and green tomato salsa. The miso complements the light briny flavour of the oyster and there’s a tartly sweet hit from the salsa that’s brightened up by a squeeze of lime and a sprig of cilantro. As near as I can tell, the celeriac is mostly there for texture, but there’s a slight starchiness in it that ties into a wheat beer. The Krombacher Weizen is a good choice for pairing here, but it seems a little too easy to just say “wheat beer and seafood.” The authentic choice would probably be a Vienna Lager here, since that’s mostly what there is other than Pale Lager in Mexico. King could do worse than try to get on tap at Estrella, since they’ve already got the Vienna Lager in bottles. It’s a contrasting pairing, given that the malty lager would provide a background for the highlights in those few bites to pop against.335

The Baja Fish Taco is heavier than I would have assumed, both in flavour and in terms of its sheer wet nap required physicality. The really interesting thing here is the combination of two kinds of heat. The chipotle aioli brings smoke while the pickled chilis are more directly assertive. For a single taco, you might want an IPA with some citrus character to let the acids battle it out. Oddly, despite the trend, the hoppiest beer on tap is Flying Monkey Hoptical Illusion. If you ordered a plate, you might need something a little lighter as the heat built. Let Hogtown and Beau’s respective Kolsches duke it out for your affection.339

Perhaps the most successful offering at Estrella is the Short Rib Taco, which is “braised with cola and cinnamon, served with chimichuri, caramelized onion, chipotle aioli with BBQ yucca chips.” The thing that I like most about this treatment is the braising method which seems to go incredibly well with the Krombacher Dunkel that they have on tap. The slight smoke from the chipotle and the peppery chimichurri really seem to work with the hefeweizen yeast. The yucca chips provide a much needed contrapuntal textural element. I am put in mind of the fact that the Germans do a type of shandy that is half hefeweizen and half cola. I don’t know why cola braise works so well here, but I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation lurking in the wings.337

There are many other items on the menu and given an afternoon and a group of people, you could make your way through a number of them at a leisurely pace, stopping periodically to play ping pong. I think they need an IPA on tap. In San Diego, one of the places I went for Tacos had Stone IPA. I think that the vibrant citrus character and acidity plays really well against some kinds of heat.

 

 

 

BEER AND FOOD: GREAT LAKES LAKE EFFECT IPA

When you talk about pairing beer and food, there are a number of things to take into account. First of all, it should be pointed out that there is no perfect pairing. Throw that nonsense out the window right now. Food pairing exists on a sliding scale from better pairings to worse pairings and much of that is subjective.

What I’m going to do today is walk you through my thought process on pairing from start to finish in what I hope will become a regular feature (as long as the grocery budget holds out.) I don’t claim to be right all the time and I don’t claim to have all the answers. I can honestly claim to have thought about it a lot more than the average beer drinker. While I’m not a great cook, I’ve got shelves of cookbooks for reference. I make bread frequently enough that I’ve got the recipe memorized. It’s like my Great Aunt Greta said: “If you can read, you can cook.”

THE BEER

 

Fabian's labels have really been coming along. At least I think this is one of his. It could be the other dude whose name I didn't catch.

Fabian’s labels have really been coming along. At least I think this is one of his. It could be the other dude whose name I didn’t catch.

Sometimes, when the beer fairy hustles gently past, you end up with a bottle. In this case, I got a bottle of Lake Effect IPA and I had no real inroads to determining how I would use it. I could review the beer, but I’m dog tired of reviewing IPAs. I have to use the word “citrusy” once more in a review this year and I’m taking hostages, you know? Thankfully, Troy Burtch (T-Bu if you’re nasty) gave me the press release to go along with the beer and it contains suggestions for pairings. It covers things that I want to know, especially since I cannot pick out a distinct memory of Lake Effect from the Great Lakes IPA cavalcade.

In terms of the beer, it says the aroma is grapefruit, mango and tangerine. It is medium bodied and the malt notes are described as “subtle.” The interesting thing here is that the tasting notes suggest grapefruit, wintergreen, dill and pine on the palate. The finish is dry. It is 7% alcohol and 80 IBUs. It’s going to be very bitter indeed.

The name of the beer is geographically relevant and gives you a sense of how the brewer developed it. It was developed by Mike Lackey in Buffalo, New York drinking IPA on a stoop in the Elmwood neighbourhood.

The food pairing suggestions are: Roast Lamb Shanks, Pad Thai and Spicy Fish Tacos.

THE THOUGHT PROCESS

It’s November. The temperature outside is just over 10 degrees at the moment. It will be colder tonight. Fish Tacos are out because you’re going to want something substantial. Pad Thai doesn’t feel right. If it were purely citrus and pine, then maybe you’d match it with lemongrass and Thai basil. The inclusion of dill and wintergreen in the tasting notes tell me it might not work as well. Roast Lamb Shanks seem to be the remaining option.

I don’t like roasting as a cooking method for lamb shanks. They tend to dry out pretty badly. I prefer a cooking method that will braise them. This is a good idea because the IPA malt character is described as “subtle” and that means that there isn’t going to be a lot of that maillard character from the kiln. You don’t need to develop much brown flavour in a dish to complement that element. Braising is a better idea.

Let’s think a little bit about seasoning. I can’t do much with wintergreen. Consulting Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking reveals that wintergreen’s primary characteristic is methyl salicylate. Mostly that’s in mouthwash and gum. That sounds like a dead end.

Dill comes in bunches the size of your head. I better get some salmon or something later this week.

Dill comes in bunches the size of your head. I better get some salmon or something later this week.

Let’s think about dill. What does wikipedia tell us? The section on culinary use tells us that it’s used mostly in Northern and Eastern Europe. It’s sometimes used in conjunction with Caraway. Buffalo has a significant German and Polish heritage, by the way. Beef on Weck. Dill Pickles. Ok. McGee says dill tastes the way it does because of pinene and limonene. Now you’re talking pacific northwest hop monoterpenes, baby.

You want to roughly chop the aromatic dill just before you add it to the pot.

You want to roughly chop the aromatic dill just before you add it to the pot.

We need to find a recipe that will incorporate lamb as a protein, the geographic influence that might have influenced the beer’s development, the suggested dill note and the suggested citrus in the aroma. It needs some sweetness or at least starch to stand up the bitterness. It also has to be substantial because it will be cold out later. I am going to need a cookbook that tells me how to cook everything.

That was a gimme.

That was a gimme.

That’s handy.

Looking up dill, we get: Lamb Stew with Root Vegetables and Dill. Let’s give it a shot.

THE RECIPE

This is a basic one pot meal. You are going to need about 2 pounds of lamb shoulder, trimmed of fat and cubed. If they’ve got stewing lamb, my advice would be to go with that if you’re uncomfortable cubing pieces of meat. You’ll need 3 cups of onions, one pound of potatoes, one pound of carrots, one pound of parsnips. You’re going to need three cups of stock. You will need a bunch of dill and a lemon.

You’ll notice that we’re not dredging the lamb in flour in this recipe. Like I said, the malt is meant to be subtle in the IPA, so we don’t need a lot of browned flavour to go with it. Add a small amount of oil to the bottom of your pot and add the onions and lamb. Let that cook a little bit while you get your root vegetables cut into pieces of approximately equal size. Once all of the root vegetables are cubed and in the pot, cover with stock. You could, I suppose, use beer. That seems like an expensive waste of alcohol.

When appropriate, use the brewery's glassware. I mean, were you born in a barn?

When appropriate, use the brewery’s glassware. I mean, were you born in a barn?

Remove the feathery bits from the dill and tie the stems into a bouquet garni. Throw the stems into the stew. In a really significant way, you’re actually mirroring the brewing process. If herbs like dill taste the way they do because of terpenes, you’re actually using the stems this early in the process to add a base flavour (not unlike bitterness) and you’re adding the fresh herbs at the end to add aroma. This is useful thing to remember.

When the stew has simmered gently for a couple of hours (either on the stove top or in a 350 degree oven), carefully extricate the stems from the pot. If you find, like I did, that your bouquet garni has come unravelled, feel free to curse loudly. Sample the stew. Salt and pepper to taste. Now, take the feathery bits from the dill and, having roughly chopped them, add them to the stew. Finish with the juice of half a lemon.

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

It's a tasty stew, but then again, it's hard to screw up a stew.

It’s a tasty stew, but then again, it’s hard to screw up a stew.

This pairing, now that I am eating it, is not quite perfect, but I think the ideas behind it are good. If Lake Effect were 15 IBUs less hoppy, it would be a great pairing. The sweetness matches between the two and the salt level is just about right. The dill and lemon really bridge the dish and the beer. The carbonation scrubs the fatty lamb from the palate, but the bitterness means that it never quite resets between bites.  It is a complementary pairing in the sense that they seem to get more like each other as it goes on.

From a purely technical standpoint, I’ve learned that I’ve wasted a decade simmering stew on the stovetop. Oven is the way to go.

Go ahead, St. John’s Wort Junior Rangers. Try it at home.

Additional Craft Beer Cookbooks and Delicious Nuts For Your Mouth

When I said that the best of the current crop of Craft Beer Cookbooks was the Canadian one, I should point out that it’s not out of bias. I mean, for one thing, I’m Canadian and it’s always nice when we win something. I also know the author, David Ort, so you might be inclined to see me as favouring the book for that reason. I can assure you that this is not the case, nice man though he may be.

The other two books are The American Craft Beer Cookbook: 155 Recipes from your Favorite Brewpubs and Breweries and The Craft Beer Cookbook: From IPAs and Bocks to Pilsners and Porters, 100 Artisanal Recipes for Cooking with Beer by John Holl and Jacquelyn Dodd respectively. Both of these books have their strengths as well.

In the case of John Holl’s book, he’s curating recipes from other sources and picking the best ones for you. I did notice that there are a number of recipes where the beers might be quite hard to find locally depending on what part of the country you’re in. This is, of course, something that provides some of the attraction for the set of recipes he has chosen. You would likely be able to make the food with a different beer and still have it feel like it was from a brewpub in San Diego or Kenosha or Butte. I don’t know that there is a cuisine specific to Butte, but it seems like ranching country.

There are a few recipes, though, where (I seem to remember) they talk about using a very specific product in the recipe that’s available at the brewpub or brewery’s website (it might have been a root beer bbq sauce.) I read it a couple of months ago, so I hope that I’m not misrepresenting it. I feel that if you can’t replicate the entire recipe given a couple hours of shopping, it’s probably not cricket. There’s no need to involve Fedex in a delicious meal.

Still, the ideas are good and the book is attractively presented and my quibbles as listed are relatively minor. It’s a good job of work.

In the case of Jacquelyn Dodd’s book, there are some quite good recipes. I quite like the look of the Porter, Goat Cheese and Portobello Mushroom Stuffed Pork Loin and I confess I’ll be trying the White Bean and Beer Chicken Chili just as soon as it gets to be slow cooker weather. IPA watermelon ceviche seems like a winner. Dodd has sidestepped the regionality issue in a craft beer cookbook by not suggesting specific brands of beer for each recipe, deciding rather to chip in periodically with “try this with a woody IPA” or “a malty stout with notes of chocolate and espresso.” That’s fine, although it can be hard to picture what a recipe would taste like without substituting in a beer of your choice mentally while reading. It’s preferable to the alternative where it specifies a beer you’ve never tasted and can’t lay hands on.

The only real problem I have is that a number of the recipes seem to involve straight volume substitutions of beer for another liquid. There’s a scratch made Cavatelli pasta that more or less substitutes beer for water or egg yolk. There are Corn Tortillas with regular Masa Harina, but instead of another liquid: beer. That’s fine as far as it goes, but why it’s happening isn’t really sufficiently explained. I feel like a number of the recipes would have benefitted from a little more conversation with the reader. I’d have gladly given up 20 of the 100 recipes for a better sense of purpose.

If you're like me and you have forgotten adequately to seal your brown sugar after last time you had oatmeal for breakfast, it is probably lumpy.

If you’re like me and you have forgotten adequately to seal your brown sugar after last time you had oatmeal for breakfast, it is probably lumpy.

Besides, I don’t really like straight volume replacement as a tool. I like it when there’s a flavourful beer getting used as a balanced ingredient in the equation. For that reason, I got the nice people over at Whitecap books to send over a .doc file that contains the recipe for the Smoky Maple Beer Nuts from the Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook. Google Chrome should let you open it in a separate tab. Let’s have a look at this and see how it works.

Although, it's only as lumpy as pictured after taking this fellow to the giant rock of brown sugar.

Although, it’s only as lumpy as pictured after taking this fellow to the giant rock of brown sugar.

This is about a two hour cooking process, but it’s probably only 15 minutes of actual work. A word on assembling ingredients for the recipe. If you’re going to go to the trouble of making your own beer nuts, you’re probably in for a pound. You can buy beer nuts for basically the price of whatever nut you purchase for this recipe. They probably won’t be as good and they certainly will not give you a sense of pride or the ability to make silly double entendre jokes. I chose to go with almonds because I like almonds, although there was a period where I stared questioningly at a bag of walnuts.

I'm relatively sure that good maple syrup is more expensive per ounce than whiskey at the LCBO.

I’m relatively sure that good maple syrup is more expensive per ounce than whiskey at the LCBO.

If you’re going to make this, you need real maple syrup. Don’t throw maple flavoured syrup on there. You might fool your guests, but deep down you’ll know. You’ll know and it will haunt you.

You've got to love the label.

You’ve got to love the label.

Actually, considering the size of the containers that maple syrup, cayenne pepper and Church Key Holy Smoke come in and the small amounts used in the recipe, the best thing to do is triple the recipe and buy about three pounds of almonds and spend an afternoon making a snack that you can put out when you’re entertaining throughout the holiday season.

It's not really adequately explained in the recipe, but toss the almonds in the wet ingredients then, once coated, add the dry ingredients and toss again. Pause briefly to marvel at the fact you own a whisk despite being unable to remember the purchase.

It’s not really adequately explained in the recipe, but toss the almonds in the wet ingredients then, once coated, add the dry ingredients and toss again. Pause briefly to marvel at the fact you own a whisk despite being unable to remember the purchase.

The reason I like this recipe is because Church Key Holy Smoke really does contain enough peat character to add to the final flavour of the beer nuts, but not quite enough to be recognizable as itself. You could probably bolster the smoke by adding a little paprika to the cayenne in the blended dry ingredients. As it stands, there’s just a hint of smoke and maple in the mixture. It’s clever because for he’s actually using the 20ml of beer as an additional spice that blends in with the cayenne.

Line a cookie sheet or baking tray with parchment paper. I was also shocked that I owned parchement paper. No measuring spoons, but parchment paper.

Line a cookie sheet or baking tray with parchment paper. I was also shocked that I owned parchment paper. No measuring spoons, but parchment paper.

A lot of the Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook recipes use beer in that fashion, and since that’s very much the way I think about beer and food, I’m excited about trying more of the recipes out. I don’t think I’ve been this excited about getting a cookbook since I got Rick Bayless’ comprehensive Mexican one.

When the nuts are done, you want to put them on a plate to cool. For the love of god, don't go putting the hot salty nuts directly into your mouth. You will burn the dickens out of the roof of your mouth. Also, probably don't go grabbing them barehanded for the first twenty minutes after they come out of the oven.

When the nuts are done, you want to put them on a plate to cool. For the love of god, don’t go putting the hot salty nuts directly into your mouth. You will burn the dickens out of the roof of your mouth. Also, probably don’t go grabbing them barehanded for the first twenty minutes after they come out of the oven.

Beer and Food: Linda Modern Thai

As a beer writer, I only get invited to events at restaurants infrequently. When I get an email suggesting that I should go to a dinner hosted by Thailand’s ambassador to Canada, it’s something of a rarity. This is an important governmental figure from another country. It would be downright gauche to refuse.

Brewed by appointment. It's nice to know there's a schedule.

Brewed by appointment. It’s nice to know there’s a schedule.

The reason for the event is due to a new program called Thai Select. The idea here is that the program certifies the authenticity of the food being served and allows the customer a degree of certainty when choosing a restaurant. Essentially, better than 60 percent of the items on the menu are meant to be authentic Thai dishes using cooking methods like you’d find in Thailand. There are two groups: Select and Select Premium. This is more or less delineated upon the quality of the food, décor and experience.

Linda Modern Thai in The Shops at Don Mills was the first restaurant in Canada to receive the Select Premium designation, so it’s fitting that the dinner expanding awareness of the program should be held there.

A rather nicely arranged collection of ingredients on the red carpet. Did I mention the red carpet? Yeah, there was a red carpet. I feel all special.

A rather nicely arranged collection of ingredients on the red carpet. Did I mention the red carpet? Yeah, there was a red carpet. I feel all special.

That said, I’m not really a restaurant critic. I’m a beer writer. Fortunately, a representative from Singha was on hand to provide me some explanation of the brand and, y’know, a method of appearing legitimately involved in the proceedings. I’m all for turning up and eating a lot of really high quality Thai food and not contributing anything, but I always feel like I should pull my weight.

It turns out that Singha is more interesting than I would have originally thought. We’re spoilt in North America by the beer cultures that we’ve inherited from Europe. In other parts of the world, one of the things that tended to happen was that European colonial powers in the 19th century would plant a flag and set up services to their benefit. Sometimes, these were breweries. Look at Mexico and Dos Equis. Why in the world, you should probably ask, is a Vienna Lager a widespread quantity? The brief Hapsburg experiment. That’s why. Look at Japan, whose brewing industry is more or less directly influenced by Dutch sailors setting up a beer hall in the 17th century.

Usually what happens when you’ve got cultures that don’t have the depth of brewing tradition you find in Europe is that they set up beers based loosely on whatever beer the colonial power that landed on their shores was brewing. It’s sort of a question of cultural imperialism. These beers are transplants that don’t really have anything to do with the local food culture. They’re usually light and refreshing and people enjoy them. Folks like a cold beer no matter where you are.

In the case of Singha, there’s not really any such causation. In point of fact, Thailand didn’t have much in the way of beer until Singha opened in 1933. That’s a late entry to the game, incidentally. That’s the same year they repealed the Volstead Act in the States, for those of you trying to place it. The really interesting thing is that they chose to brew this style of beer. The founder of the brewery was a friend of the King and the brewery was endorsed by the monarch. The founder went to Germany and learned how to brew beer and came back and set up a brewery. That’s a fairly unique circumstance.

Say you had a country. You don’t have any breweries, but you’re starting to think “you know, I could go for a tall, cold… something.” You get to choose from any beer in the world, and at this point you might look to the United States for your model. You’d maybe make something like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. There’s a lot of choice. In 1933, though, there weren’t breweries in the US. If you wanted to learn to brew, you went to Germany. As a result, Singha is an all barley German lager. As lagers that I’ve had from that part of the world go, it’s really pretty good. You’ve got some light grain on the nose and there’s a slightly sour finish. It’s a Euro-style Lager.

That said, as a beer for pairing with Thai food, it has one trick. People will tell you that you’ve got three options with food pairing: Complement, Cut and Contrast. What Singha manages to do is cut and it does it well. It resets the palate for the next mouthful.IMAG0037 IMAG0039

If you look at the first course, the dish that stood out for me was the Chicken and Shrimp Larb. It’s essentially a lettuce wrap with cashews, vermicelli, water chestnuts and nam prik pao. The point of the dish is that it’s customizable. You’ve got a tray of condiments with shallots, lime, peanuts, dried shrimp, toasted coconut and some pretty diabolical little chilies. Think for a moment about the amount of thought that you’d need to put in in order to complement or contrast those. It’s rendered more or less impossible by the number of ingredients and the fact that each mouthful is going to be rendered slightly different by the taste of each diner. Cutting those flavours for reset is really all you can hope for from any beer in this situation.

Lobster Bisque.

Lobster Bisque.

I’m going to step away from that train of thought for a moment for the next course, which in my case was the Thai Lobster Bisque. Now, I’m given to understand that this is something of a house speciality, and because of that I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the depth of flavour here. The description says “made with lots and lots and lots of lobsters, a bit of butter and Thai herbs.” They are not kidding around about the lobsters. One of the aromas you get from the bisque is actually chitinous lobster shell, which you might think would be off-putting, but the depth of the flavour is marvelous; the mellow roundness of it. The elegant richness. The bisque is so densely packed with flavour that the cilantro garnish doesn’t make any impact until you get a mouthful. On a scale of one to ten, it put a David Gilmour song in my head.

The main course was served family style and comprised five dishes. It occurs to me that you could probably have paired a beer with any one of these single dishes. The Crispy Beef Panang could possibly do with an Ommegang Hennepin. The Stewed Duck with Chestnuts could possibly have done with a fruity Belgian Dubbel (Black Oak’s version of this would work well here). The issue, really, is that family style service makes that more or less impossible since you’re trying a small amount of each dish. Again, Singha works nicely here by simply reframing each new bite. To be fair, it’s probably more fun that way since everyone at the table is experiencing it in the same way.

Fantastically rich, really.

Fantastically rich, really.

A really pleasant piece of attention to detail on the Pineapple Yellow Curry.

A really pleasant piece of attention to detail on the Pineapple Yellow Curry.

Pineapple tureen. More fragrant than a regular tureen.

Pineapple tureen. More fragrant than a regular tureen.

I like to think about cuisines that don’t have traditional beer cultures. I like to break down the ingredients and figure out which terpenes they’re like to contain and then cross reference that with hops varieties and theorize about which styles might work with the dish. I’m sure that I’ll continue to do that since it’s fascinating and I’m relatively sure that I’ll see some of the theory borne out as craft beer makes its way to different countries over the next dozen or so years. This experience with Singha is a solid reminder that like the Chicken and Shrimp Larb, it all depends on individual taste.

So You Want To Be A Brewer: Lazarus Breakfast Stout

The nice thing about planning an event like the Feast Of St.John for Toronto Beer Week is that I’ve managed to create a certain amount of context for myself over three years or so that I’ve been writing about beer. I’ve collaborated on beers with a number of breweries, frequently with pretty good results. I have never really understood whether that is because I have some idea of what I’m doing or possibly just because I pick really talented people to work with.

If you don't make it a Great Lakes day, you will make Troy Burtch sad. That would be monstrous.

If you don’t make it a Great Lakes day, you will make Troy Burtch sad. That would be monstrous.

It’s hard to believe that the first of these collaborations was almost three years ago now. The original batch of Lazarus Breakfast Stout was brewed in Mid-November 2010. It was before I was working for Sun Media, if that gives you any indication of the time span. In that time period Project X at Great Lakes for which the beer was originally brewed has ceased to happen on a routine basis. The experimental brews that developed out of it have become the “Tank Ten” series. The fruits of Project X resulted in Great Lakes becoming the best brewery in Canada this year at the Canadian Brewing Awards. Mike Lackey has not yet been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace through Zymurgy, but I’m sure that as soon as they found one, he’ll be considered.

A few facts, gentle reader, about Mike Lackey:

Mike Lackey’s brewing prowess is not actually attributable to his beard, as I may previously have indicated. The truth is that Mike Lackey was actually barrel aged for the first six years of his life, receiving his meals through a specially drilled bunghole. His first language was not English, but rather the nearly imperceptible hum of cerevesiae. It is the great tragedy of his life that he has never been able to reproduce by mitosis. The beard is only window dressing.

It’s no wonder he’s done so well.

This time around, it seriously occurred to me as we stood there talking about his various projects (He’s creating a beer concept called SMASHASS) and my various theories (food and beer pairing should be derived from scientific first principles) that we’re getting old. We talked about some of the new breweries that are popping up and what we thought their chances were.  We talked about how much more stuff there is now. In November 2010, when we first worked together, there were about 50 Ontario breweries, many of whom were doing very little. According to Mom and Hops today? 137 active and in planning.

The smell that comes off a wort with this percentage of dark malt is pretty hypnotic.

The smell that comes off a wort with this percentage of dark malt is pretty hypnotic.

This batch of Lazarus sort of reflects the changes. Originally, I brought the idea with me because I really liked Founder’s Breakfast Stout and I really liked Oaxacan Mole sauce. I continue to like both of those things, so the ingredients have not changed. It’s still an oatmeal breakfast stout with a really significant amount of roast and dark malt. It still has cinnamon, chocolate, and ancho chili. It still gets a half pound of coffee in the whirlpool (you avoid the leeching tannins that way.) The main difference this time around is that the alcohol content is a little lower. Originally, we think Lazarus was supposed to be 7.0% alcohol and near 50 BU’s. We lost the sheet after the first batch, so we were going from the second version, which we had already tweaked.

Here’s an important tip to all you well meaning lugs out there starting your own brewery: Don’t lose the freakin’ sheet. It’s black box crash test time. Without the sheet, if people criticize you for inconsistency, you deserve the rich, velvety, lambasting you get. Don’t be a chump: keep the sheet. Laminate it. Put it in a safety deposit box.

We decided that we’d rather have more beer at slightly lower alcohol. The flavour isn’t really dependent on the alcohol in this beer, but rather on the vast number of elements that contribute flavour. I don’t really think anyone is going to feel cheated if the beer drops to 5.5% alcohol. The novelty is the Oaxacan Mole thing.

Mike and I discussed briefly whether the nice folks at Aztec in Vista, California borrowed the idea for the beer for their Noche De Los Muertos. We figure that they probably arrived at theirs independently and that it doesn’t matter since the label is so cool. I actually got to try their version at the San Diego Zoo while holding a python. I like ours better, but I’m biased.

Once you add the coffee in the whirlpool, the rolling foam gets darker and darker. I love that part.

Once you add the coffee in the whirlpool, the rolling foam gets darker and darker. I love that part.

In terms of the Feast Of St. John, one of the great things is that Lester Garcia at the Wallace Gastropub has actually inserted mole sauce into the menu. I’m not sure exactly what the food pairing is going to be for the Lazarus Breakfast Stout, but I do know that I’m finally going to get to put it together with the thing that inspired it. Actually, the awesome part is that Lester’s version of the mole sauce is lighter in colour than a Mole Negro, so we’re going to get a fantastic range of flavours. His version incorporates a lot of fennel seeds, so it’ll be really interesting to see how that interacts.

I’m told that Lazarus will also be available as part of the tap takeover at Bar Hop on the 19th of September. That’s going to be a fun day. See the Michael Jackson movie and then go try your own beer on tap at a takeover hosted by Great Lakes and Bellwoods. Sometimes you’re given a reminder that you really don’t have the right to complain about your job.

How much more black could it possibly be? None. None more black.

How much more black could it possibly be? None. None more black.

In Which I Review Two Books About Beer

One of the really nice things about having a column with a big circulation is that people send you things to review. Sometimes, it’s not even beer.

At one point about a month ago, three books cropped up. One of those was Pete Brown’s Shakespeare’s Local, referred to here by its proper name as the transatlantic marketing efforts take away from the character of the thing. “I know,” said some crackerjack in the marketing department on a Friday just after a lengthy lunch, “we’ll call it Shakespeare’s Pub. That’s what people in America call pubs right? They have pubs there, surely? What’s that Bob? Bars? That’s not quite as homey.” This neglects the fact that Pete Brown is a deeply British man and that reading his prose you wouldn’t mistake him for anything else. There’s a lengthy digression on authenticity and the Sugababes, for God’s sake.

They have those in America, right?

Anyway, that’s a very good book (BUY THE BOOK!), but I’m here today to review two other books which I have been sent.

A YEAR IN FOOD AND BEER17466594

This is a book by Emily Baime and Darin Michaels who run Community Tap and Table in Sacramento, California. The idea here is a good one, and it focuses on providing recipes that fit into the four seasons of the year and take advantage of the beer traditions those seasons represent while managing to fit in seasonal ingredients where obligatory.

There are some very good ideas in A Year In Food And Beer including a very clever treatment of crabs in the spring section (I agree with them here that you want the pairing to take the sauces into account and for that reason they’ve provided three sauces and three beer pairings.) I quite like the look of the Mango Caprese in the Summer section and may try that at home at some point. Fall has a tempting Pork Loin with Celery Leaf and Green Peppercorn Cream recipe that I think is a very good idea. There are also sections on Cheese and Chocolate that present cogent explanations of the information that you need in order to pair them properly.

It’s a very good attempt, but it has to be said, if you approach it with a critical eye rather than from the traditional blogger as cheerleader role, that there are some problems inherent here that have mostly to do with regionalism.

One of the reasons I couldn’t have reviewed this book for Sun Media is that it is specific to the experiences of Emily and Darin. From the small amount of interaction that I’ve had with them, I can tell you that they’re competent and enthusiastic. However, they are from Sacramento.

One of the things Garrett Oliver gets exactly right in The Brewmaster’s Table is to focus on classic examples of styles. He waxes rhapsodic about Saison Dupont. This may have been because that book is nearly a decade old at this point and there simply wasn’t the selection of American Craft Beer at the time that there is now. Some of the selections in this book would be pretty hard to find outside of California. In much of Canada, they simply don’t exist: Lost Coast, Russian River, Ballast Point, The Bruery. World class beers all, but not available for purchase.

Also, I think that the difference in climate results in an odd conceptual translation of a winter menu to something comprising comfort foods. I imagine there’s always fresh produce in California. In Ontario, if it’s February, we got turnips.

It’s a good book to purchase if you’re really into the beer and food pairing idea and you’re able to lay hands on some interesting American beer. If you’re in Alberta, this might work out better than it does in Ontario. It is also a good book to purchase if you enjoy chapter spanning metaphors featuring an orchestral jazz saxophonist. On the whole, it’s a good effort even if it sacrifices some authoritativeness for regional applicability. 

CRAFT BEER REVOLUTION: THE INSIDER’S GUIDE TO BC BREWERIES.CraftBeerRevolution_cover

Written by Joe Wiebe, who writes under the pseudonym of the Thirsty Writer for various publications, this is an attempt to chronicle a specific period in the development of British Columbia’s craft beer scene. Typically, when you get a book like this that catalogues all of the breweries in a geographical region, you get a pretty bare bones sort of approach to the subject as a result of the temporal constraint. You want to get everybody in the book, and that means even the newest members of the scene. If a brewery opens a month before your comprehensive guide is released, that sucker had better be in there.

Having written a book and having some understanding of deadlines, this would be pretty hard to do. In fact, writing a guide of this sort is becoming more or less impossible due to the scale of the industry and how quickly it is growing. There was a week in Ontario this summer where three breweries opened. Imagine submitting your book the week before that happened. Immediate obsolescence is a bummer.

Joe has gotten around this by listing five breweries that are slated to open, guaranteeing that this book will not be out of date until 2014. Clever boy.

That said, this is not merely a guide to the breweries as they stand. It doesn’t rank them; it appreciates their better qualities. More importantly, perhaps, is the reason that this approach has been taken. Wiebsy has been around the craft beer industry in B.C. for quite a while and has known the majority of these people for a while. His writing conveys a sense of not only why each brewery is important, but why they’re important to him. I suspect that he more or less effortlessly has a sense of everything that’s going on in the B.C. scene.  This is a fine quality to have in a tour guide.

He’s also managed to surreptitiously work a nuanced history of craft beer in B.C. into the brewery listings. You get a really good picture of the scene and how it evolved from John Mitchell to Gary Lohin and of all of the interceding steps. He charts the migration of brewers around the scene and the fall of once popular breweries. He treats the entirety of the subject with respect, which is nice to see.

Whether you’re looking for a simple guide to the best place to get a pint in Vancouver or Victoria or an in depth history (without really realizing that you’re getting one), you’re going to want a copy of Craft Beer Revolution. Joe has managed to do as well as one could possibly do with the format while maintaining a personal, peripatetic kind of feel.

They sent me coasters with the book. That was a nice touch.

They sent me coasters with the book. That was a nice touch.

So You Want To Be A Brewer: St. John Marzen

When I started writing about beer, it was because I was trying to establish some credentials in order to get into brewing school. I did manage, subsequently, to get into brewing school, but then there was a book deal. I found that commuting 5 hours a day to Niagara College and writing a book didn’t mix particularly well. I don’t believe that you can get a book written on a Coach Canada bus, especially when you factor in the 5:30 am start to the day and the slight nausea that comes with that kind of travel.

From inside the brewhouse looking out at the bar. ca. Beer O'Clock

From inside the brewhouse looking out at the bar. ca. Beer O’Clock

Eventually, the book about brewing (You can buy a copy by clicking the link to the right!) won out. It’s a difficult thing. Having now written the book, I’m convinced that I could do it in a shorter amount of time. At the time, the sense of deadline related panic rendered it a full time occupation. After all, the only way to learn how to write a book is to write a book.

I continue to enjoy brewing. There are the wonderful aromas that you only get in a brewhouse. After eight months away from it, even the sharp vinegar whiff of the paracetic acid used for sterilizing equipment conjures up a temporal sense of place. You get the aroma off the kettle five minutes after the first hop addition, and that’s a marvelous smell. There’s the edifying sense in that aroma that you’re accomplishing something. You’re making something that will, if everything goes right, give a number of people a small pleasure at the end of their day.

Freshly milled grain is one of those healthy smells that I think we're all sort of programmed to recognize.

Freshly milled grain is one of those healthy smells that I think we’re all sort of programmed to recognize.

It was for this reason that I put up a notice on facebook a short while ago that I missed brewing, and would any generous Ontario breweries like to host a one-off collaboration. It got slightly more response than I suspected that it would. No fewer than four breweries came forward to suggest that I could work with them on a project.

Faced with that potential, the seemingly ideal thing to do would be to thank your lucky stars that anyone is interested and then maybe choose one of those four breweries to work with. I gave the calendar a glance and realized that Toronto Beer Week is coming up, meaning that the beer writer’s Barrel Bragging Rights event was right around the corner.

Last year, Josh Rubin from the Toronto Star won with a pretty nifty Dopplebock that reminded me of nothing so much as Schloss Eggenberg’s version. It was an absolute corker. This year, I wanted to beat Josh Rubin if only to maintain the completely fictional inter-newspaper rivalry that we enjoy as banter. I decided that the thing to do was to create four one off beers so that I could choose the one that was most likely to be successful served out of an oak barrel. After all, Rubin must be crushed!

The only problem is that I haven’t heard anything about the Barrel Bragging Rights competition this year, and I believe it may be taking a short hiatus until 2014. Perhaps you’re beginning to see the problem: Four beers and no event at which to serve them.

It was at that point that I decided to create my own event for Toronto Beer Week: The Feast of St.John.

You know you've got quality when you've got Weyermann.

You know you’ve got quality when you’ve got Weyermann.

The intent here is to host a four course beer dinner in which all of the beer and food is designed from the ground up to fit into a cohesive menu with a progression from start to finish. I’ve been to beer dinners where the chef has to fit the menu to the beer. I’ve also talked with Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn a little bit about how he created a beer specifically to go with a roast chicken at NoMad in New York.

I don’t know that anyone has tried to pull off an event like this before. I figure I’m qualified, what with a certain amount of training as a brewer, a Certified Cicerone designation and a pretty decent depth of food knowledge. I’ve got a great cook to work with and a venue to host it in. Plus, why the heck wouldn’t you do it? I mean, it’s not exactly like you’re going to take a credibility hit for trying something really difficult. The details are still coming together, but brewing began on Friday.

The marzen will eventually be approximately this colour. I love that bright orange melanoidin burst.

The marzen will eventually be approximately this colour. I love that bright orange melanoidin burst.

The first beer is a collaboration with The Beer Academy, which now occupies the downtown brewpub location that housed Duggan’s and, once upon a time, Growler’s. It’s going to be a Marzen, which should be just the thing for mid to late September with Oktoberfests popping up all over the place. I was a little surprised that they’d let me try my hand at a lager, what with the longer aging time and the fact that lagers just aren’t very trendy at the moment.

Sometimes it seems that if you want to sell a beer these days, you’ve got to get a gimmick. With the prevalence of IPAs and the number of sub-varieties that the style has spawned (white, black, double, imperial) the big bitter kick is pretty popular. I confess to a certain amount of fatigue on that front. There are only so many times you review vastly similar things without wearing out your vocabulary and attention span.

During the planning meeting, we were looking for a style of beer. One of the things that you need to know about The Beer Academy is that rather than working with brand new state of the art equipment as you’d expect at a Molson owned property, they’re using the equipment that came with the building when they took over.

One of the things that struck me about brewing at the Beer Academy is the care being taken of the equipment. They're very respectful of it.

One of the things that struck me about brewing at the Beer Academy is the care being taken of the equipment. They’re very respectful of it.

I believe that Growlers was started in 1989, so some of that stuff is probably nearly a quarter century old at this point. The fermenters are what I guess you’d call round bottomed grundy tanks, which are pretty much what there was at the time. Round bottoms mean that dry hopping is going to be messy, so they tend not to make beers that would require it. Additionally, the boil kettle is electric, meaning that you do get a small amount of smoky flavour as a house character because of hotspots.

Given that information about the system, you want to work with it instead of trying to force it to do something it’s not suited to. If you look at the lineup that was featured at Growlers, it heavily featured German styles. Marzen was a great choice, even if it’s slightly intimidating to be doing that on Michael Hancock’s old equipment.

This is really clever. They have produced a grant for the mash tun that operates on a float arm and empties once it reaches a certain fill level. It's the same principle as a toilet tank and it means that you can safely ignore the exact rate of flow. Very clever.

This is really clever. They have produced a grant for the mash tun that operates on a float arm and empties once it reaches a certain fill level. It’s the same principle as a toilet tank and it means that you can safely ignore the exact rate of flow. Very clever.

We came up with a malt bill that is a pretty standard blend of floor malted bohemian pilsner and some slighty more melanoidin heavy malt for colour and flavour. In addition to doing the typical beer collaboration photo op activities like hoisting grain into the mill and raking out the mash tun, I got to choose the hop bill on the day. I went with three varieties of hallertauer and some saaz. The neat thing about the hallertauer varieties are that they’re pretty humulene heavy noble hops and provide some woody, spicy notes on the palate. We used Hersbrucker and Tradition for the boil, but found a lovely variety of New Zealand hallertauer in the hop room that has that signature mineral and tropical fruit kick that you get out of New Zealand hops. The saaz is there because I like that peppery aroma and I’m hoping that it’ll provide some depth of flavour without confusing the issue.

At some point during the brew day, the previous day's Belgian Tripel kicked into overdrive. Krausen cascades all the way to the floor.

At some point during the brew day, the previous day’s Belgian Tripel kicked into overdrive. Krausen cascades all the way to the floor.

From the point of view of pairing with food, Marzen comes with a cultural heritage you can’t ignore. The hope is that the aroma from the New Zealand hallertauer will open up some options to expand on German tradition.

Thanks go to the nice folks at The Beer Academy. Stephen, for displaying the depth of his beer nerdery during planning by whipping out the smartphone BJCP app. Quentin, for walking me through what is basically a refresher course after a year away from brewing. Todd, for handling the calculations and for letting me in the building in the first place.

 

Flights and Bites @ Fanny Chadwick’s – 2013

It’s no secret that one of the things I look forward to every year during Ontario Craft Beer Week is the comparatively larger number of people thinking seriously about beer and food. Beer dinners, for instance, abound. The version of beer and food pairing that I think is probably most illustrative is not a beer dinner, however.

A beer dinner comes with certain problems. There has to be a flow through the menu. The fact that you’re trying these plates sequentially with whichever beers are provided by the featured brewery can end up being somewhat limiting from a conceptual perspective. I should mention briefly that I’ve heard some lovely things about the beer dinner at The Auld Spot which featured beers by Michael Hancock and Matt O’Hara from Beau’s. If you look at bits of the menu, there’s a framework at play. It’s going to be pork heavy, given the name and nature of the restaurant (If your sign features a pig, you’d better be serving a very large amount of pig.) and the styles of beer on offer and the fact that the brewers are doing German styles of Ale for the most part.

A great deal of planning goes into a framework like that, and when it comes together it’s something to be proud of. It ties together cultural heritage, a restaurant concept, course progression and the taste of two individual brewers and a chef.

Personally, as an experience, I like smaller, encapsulated attempts at beer and food. I like it when the concepts behind dishes are defined mostly by a sense of play. The reason Fanny Chadwick’s excels at this is because they’re doing comfort food in a culturally indistinct sort of way. The menu incorporates the strengths of whomever happens to be working in the kitchen at the time and more often than not it comes together beautifully.

This year for Ontario Craft Beer Week, they’re again doing their Flights and Bites event, which allows the kitchen to cook with a number of the beers on tap and allows you to choose a certain number of beers to try with the dishes they’ve prepared. Compared to a five course beer dinner, it’s affordable and customizable, allowing you to choose from the 12 beers they have on tap (some of which, and don’t tell anyone up high in the organization at the OCB, are not even members).

Here’s the menu for this year. I’ve done something incredibly dull and decided not to play around with beer pairings too much. If the beer is used in the preparation of the dish, I’ve tasted that beer with the dish. It seemed like the thing to do at the time.

Popcorn glazed with a Lake of Bays Riverwalker Reduction

This would actually be a pretty variable bar snack. Someone should steal this idea.

This would actually be a pretty variable bar snack. Someone should steal this idea.

This is an interesting idea. The Lake of Bays Riverwalker is a lemon and ginger summer ale. While the citrus is present on the aroma, the finish of the beer is dominated fairly heavily by gingery bitterness. It’s not a subtle attempt at a summer ale, but it does what it says it’s going to. The question of what to with that is a slightly difficult one. You have to balance out the bitterness slightly and you want to play with the ginger without reinforcing it since it’s already pretty dominant.

In the case of this pairing, the reduction on the popcorn has been sweetened slightly and the popcorn has been garnished with a small amount of cilantro, scallion and lime. It’s a little like a thai cracker jack that never existed. It manages the bitterness in the Riverwalker pleasantly, and the salt perks up the entire experience. It is slightly difficult to eat. You will want a wet-nap.

Sprout Salad with Muskoka Mad Tom Braised Carrots tossed in IPA Vinaigrette

I don't have a clever caption for salad.

I don’t have a clever caption for salad.

This is clever. Mad Tom is a pretty big, brash IPA that I seem to recall weighs in at 64 IBUs. There’s a nice balance of malt sweetness and caramel, and the hop character is dominated by citrus and pineapple. The decision to use it in two different ways in this plate didn’t go quite the way I was expecting. Braising carrots in IPA is, I suppose, similar to a Vichy preparation, but since it’s an IPA I guess maybe Raj would be the more appropriate term. When you concentrate an IPA like that, the hop character increases and in this case the hop bitterness comes through in the braised carrots (which is good because they could have been overly sweet). With the vinaigrette the malt sweetness of the IPA comes through, I’m guessing because of the slightly spiky acidity. These two flavours balance out on the creamy mini bocconcini.

Crostini with Cream Cheese and Beau’s Lug-Tread Fig Jam topped with Housemade Lonzino

Ridges of Lonzino: Plating option or little known Ennio Morricone soundtrack?

Ridges of Lonzino: Plating option or little known Ennio Morricone soundtrack?

As a single plate, this is probably the most successful thing on this year’s menu. I like the vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright construction. I like the fact that it’s the kind of thing you might come up with at home as an hors d’oeuvre on a lazy Sunday. The difference is that at home, you’re not curing your own Lonzino with a small amount of lavender; You’re not making a rustically textured fig jam with a Kolsch. I tend not to think of Lug Tread as a bitter beer, but if you’re using it in a jam the bitterness will concentrate and here it provides some significant interest. This is mostly about four different textures coming together in the same bite. Paired with the Lug Tread, it draws more fruit ester out of the beer, enhancing a quality which is usually in the background.

Mussels and Steam Whistle Fritters with Vietnamese Dipping Sauce

I like the mussel shells as a bed for service. Better than what the Romans used them for.

I like the mussel shells as a bed for service. Better than what the Romans used them for.

I like this mostly because it’s a novelty for me. Usually when mussels are on a beer related menu, they’re simply steamed in the beer with some shallot and garlic. There are entire restaurants predicated on variations of the steamed mussel. What’s happened here is that it has been steamed in Steam Whistle, removed from the shell (probably pretty painstaking prep work there) and incorporated into a sort of cormeal breaded fritter with cilantro. You will remember I was talking the other week about Maillard reaction in malt and in dry heat cooking preparations. The deep fried fritter balances the Pilsner malt Steam Whistle is made with pretty marvellously. That specific sweetness is mirrored in the beer and the crust of the fritter. The fish sauce and tamarind provide salt, sweet, sour and umami. The fritter is actually three textures with the chew from the mussel, light filling and crusty exterior. Deceptively simple. Nice plating.

Also, there's a pretty excellent peanut butter banana ice cream sandwich. It was after this I decided to walk home.

Also, there’s a pretty excellent peanut butter banana ice cream sandwich. It was after this I decided to walk home.

I know that OCB week is sometimes about the big marquee events, but the Flights and Bites menu at Fanny Chadwick’s is worth your time. They seem to have knack for beer and food pairing. If you don’t make it during OCB week, it’s still a good choice year round. There are even rumors of a patio going in.

Beer and Food Basics: Hops and the Marshall Stack

One of the things that frustrates me when I’m reading a bottle of beer is when there are food pairing suggestions that don’t tell you anything. “Try this with spicy foods,” the label proudly exclaims, as though that conveys any useful information.

Usually, when the bottle says something like that you can be pretty much guaranteed that you’re looking at a hoppy beer. Wouldn’t it be better for you if you knew why you were supposed to drink something with some kind of food?

Here’s the thing: Hops create a significant amount of flavour in beer, but the level of bitterness in the particular beer you’re looking at tells you comparatively little. IBUs have ramped up steadily since I started writing about beer, but where a beer ranks in terms of IBUs on a scale of 1-100 doesn’t really convey useful sensory information except “hope you didn’t like your tooth enamel, Skeezix.”

There are all these different varieties of hops. If you’re a music fan, you could think of them as guitarists. All of the hop varieties impart different flavours and nuances to a beer, so it’s a little like the pantheon of guitar players. You might have something like Robert Johnson with his soulful playing. It might be like Bo Diddley, thrumming away. It might be a picker like Chet Atkins or Mark Knopfler. If might be some kind of technically virtuousic thing like Steve Vai or Eddie Van Halen. All of these players have their own distinctive sounds.

What the focus on IBUs has done is to distract us from the character of the hops being used in various kinds of beer. Focusing on IBUs is a little like focusing on the size of the amplifier. It’s like asking someone whether the concert was any good and being told that the Marshall Stack was the size of a house. All you can deduce from that is that the concert was loud and that someone’s probably going to develop tinnitus.

If you’re thinking about beer and food, the hop variety is almost certainly more important than whether something is a 25 or a 45 or a 70 on the IBU scale. You need to think about what makes that hop distinctive.

If you look at the hop profile listed on a grower’s website, it tends to impart information like Alpha Acids and Beta Acids. Alpha Acids are what make a beer bitter. If you read a little further down the list, you get into essential oil content, and that’s the really important thing to consider in terms of food.

For the most part, these are called terpenes. Wikipedia is telling me that they’re primary constituents of a number of plants and flowers and that they’re responsible in large part for why organic things smell the way they do. This means that these are in hops, certainly, but they’re also in just about all the other plants you’d eat. This includes vegetables and fruits and spices (and grapes. To be fair, there’s some writing about why monoterpenes are important in wine, but comparatively little about why they’re important in beer.)

Rather than come up with some comprehensive list, let’s take a look at three hop varieties and how the essential oils from those hops create flavours. You don’t need to remember their names, but I want you to understand that if you notice a commonality in flavour between your beer and something you’re eating, it’s not by chance: The number of permutations of flavour in nature is finite. You’re not imagining similarity. Everything is made of the same stuff.

FUGGLES

Using this link as a guide, we can see that the hop oils in Fuggles is dominated by humulene, followed by myrcene, caryophyllene and farnesene. If you’ve smelled Fuggle hops, you probably know them to have a woody, herbal, practically minty kind of aroma. That’s because the humulene dominates the list of essential oils. Humulene is a sesquiterpene and it tends not to break down during the boil. Myrcene, on the other hand, is pretty volatile. What myrcene there is contained in a Fuggle is going to dissipate during the boil and you’re going to be left with other aromatic compounds including menthol, citral, linalool, nerol, geraniol and limonene.

In terms of pairing with food, what does this tell us? Well, it’s going to be woody and slighty herbal with some spice notes dominating. You might, if they’re used as an aroma hop, get mint or citrus or floral notes. They’re usually used as an aroma hop because of the low alpha acid content.

The important thing to remember is that just about all the plants in the world smell and taste the way they do because of the terpenes. You might want a beer dry-hopped with Fuggles if you’re having lamb with mint sauce since the commonality is menthol. Or maybe you want to try it with a light thai dish containing lemongrass since the common elements are citral and nerol. The important thing to remember is that these are accents over top of the underlying woody character.

SAAZ

Saaz is similarly used primarily as an aroma hop because of its low alpha acid. If you’ve ever had a Czech Pilsner, you’re probably pretty familiar with the variety. It’s herbal and spicy and I would usually use peppery as a descriptor for the aroma. Saaz hops usually contain about equal amounts of myrcene and humulene. What it contains in larger proportion than just about everything else is farnesene, which is giving it that herbal, vegetation, spice character. Typically, farnesene is much higher in noble hops than in the new world varieties.

You might think of Saaz as being sort of gentle because of the varieties of beers that it usually finds itself in. Think a bit about what it can do for food. The possibility of interplay of spices is pretty impressive, with black or white pepper complimenting a dish. With something like a jagerschnitzel, you’re suddenly playing the farnesene in the aroma of the pilsner off the earthiness of the mushrooms in the sauce. The great thing is that you didn’t know you were doing that, but that’s one of the reasons that pairing works.

CASCADE

I’m using Cascade here to make a point about new world hops. It’s a great deal higher in myrcene than noble hop varieties, as are the majority of new world hops. You’re not going to get much woody character from the humulene because there’s very little of it. It can be used for bittering or aroma because of the alpha acid content. The reason you get citrus and grapefruit out of it in a dominant way is because the myrcene breaks down into other compounds that commonly occur in citrus like citral and citronellol and citronellal.

I think that the preference for big citrusy American hops has a lot to do with California and the cuisine that grew up there. If you have the ability to grow citrus in quantity (try doing that in England or Germany) you’re going to want to mirror that flavour in whatever you’re drinking. Picture a fish taco without that bright spritz of lemon acidity. It’s just not the same.

WHAT DID WE LEARN

If you’re going to think about pairing hops with food, you probably want to think of them not as a main component of your pairing but as an accent. Rather than bitterness the thing to focus on is the aroma and flavour that they’re imparting to the gustatory experience. Since the terpenes that make up the flavours that hops impart occur naturally in spices and vegetables, that’s where you should be looking for commonality or contrast in your pairing.

For instance, if you’re thinking about a steak, the hops really aren’t going to have any interplay with the meat. However, if you’ve seasoned the steak with pepper or you’ve got a chimichurri or mole sauce or you’ve marinated in citrus, you’ve got an element to play with. If you know a little bit about the hops that went into the beers in your fridge, you’ve suddenly got a playground to explore.

The Basics of Beer and Food – Malt and Maillard

One of the things that frustrates me when I read about beer and food pairing is that the subject tends to get filed down into digestible sound bites. I suppose that makes sense given that a lot of communication on the subject takes place on twitter and in short articles. There are things that you hear over and over; notes cadged from Garrett Oliver’s Brewmaster’s Table and Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer.

One of the key rules that I’ve heard is that you want a light coloured beer with fish and a dark coloured beer with red meat. This has the benefit of echoing the traditional framework of pairing wine with food, but I don’t think that it provides enough information for people who are serious about pairing food with beer at home. I’ve been doing some research and I want to explain why this rule of thumb works in a general sense in a way that you can actually apply to your meal.

There are a couple of fairly basic principles that you have to understand about beer and food.

The first thing is, perhaps a little obviously, that beer is grain based. Certainly water makes up the majority of your beer, but grain runs a distant second. People claim that “hops are to beer what grapes are to wine.” I’ve got a t-shirt that says so. The fact of the matter is that the key thing to take into account when pairing beer with food is not the hops, but rather the grains that go into making your beer.

Most of the grain that goes into your beer is kilned (excepting things like wheat or oats). That is to say that the malting process results in a both the starches being converted into fermentable material. If you’re kilning a pale malt, most of the starches will be fermentable. If you’re kilning a darker coloured malt, two phenomena take place during kilning: caramelization and Maillard browning. Caramelization happens exclusively in sugars and it’s mostly responsible for the nutty and caramel notes you get from malt. The Maillard reaction happens because of a reaction between sugar and amino acids. If you’re getting biscuit or cracker like flavours from your beer, that’s the Maillard reaction.

If malt is kilned at a fairly low temperature, you might not get a huge amount of Maillard browning. However, there are specifically kilned malts that produce much larger amounts of Maillard browning. I’ve provided some pretty technical link there, but you can take my word for the fact that darker malts result in more Maillard browning products. Your darker crystal malts, for instance, are full of that flavour. As are Melanodin malts.

Maillard browning also takes place during the boil. You know that sludgy gunk that forms around the rim of the kettle that you scrape back down in? Some of that is hop sludge and some of that is Maillard sludge.

Why, you may ask, is this important? It will be. Be patient.

I was reading Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, and I want to talk to you about animals. Delicious animals.

Essentially, there are two kinds of muscle fiber in all animals. You’ve got short, fast twitch fibers and you’ve got long strand, slow twitch fiber. To generalize, your large land dwelling mammals like cows and pigs and mammoths and zebras are slow twitchers. Sure, your BBC nature documentary may show them doing dramatic things when they’re chased by lions, but for the most part being a herbivore  type mammal involves a lot of standing around grazing. Most of the musculature of these animals is designed for combating gravity in the long term. Some of the cuts of these animals are more tender than others, but by and large the slow twitch fiber will stand up to some pretty harsh treatment in the kitchen.

Fish don’t suffer the same effects from gravity. They have swim bladders. If you ever came home from vacation to find a floating goldfish, you know this to be true. Their musculature is basically about propelling them through the water with a quick movement of the tail. They’re darters. They’re always moving about. For this reason, they’re usually comprised of fast twitch, short fibers.

The culinary ramifications are important to think about. If you overcook fish, it flakes. That’s because of the short fibers. If you have an off cut of beef, you’re going to need to braise the hell out of it to break down the long fibers. Because of the way these different proteins are composed, we’ve ended up with different cooking methods for them.

You might steam or poach a fish with very light flesh. It requires a relatively delicate approach. Usually, you’re using some medium to transfer heat to them, whether you’re using steam or you’re cooking a sole meuniere in butter. Maybe you’re planking salmon and the ambient heat is doing its thing with a touch of smoke, causing the fish to steam itself. If you’re grilling fish, you’re probably doing whole fish and the skin is holding it together.

The majority of mammal protein you’re eating can be treated pretty roughly by comparison. Meat stands up to dry heat cooking methods like roasting or grilling or pan frying. The interesting thing about dry heat methods is that they create (I told you I’d get to it eventually) Maillard browning. Those grill marks on your steak? Maillard browning. The marvelous crackly bits of pig? Maillard browning. Anytime the recipe is telling you to sear the meat before putting it in your stew? Maillard browning.

So: here’s the important bit. Darker beer includes maillard reactions at a fairly basic and profound level. So do many of the dry heat methods that you’re going to use to cook meat. If you’re going to talk about pairing beer and food and you’re wanting to point out that beer works better than wine as a companion to a meal, it might be worth pointing out that this is something that wine doesn’t really have going for it.

By extension, one of the reasons that wheat based beers work so well with a wide variety of seafood is that they don’t contain as many Maillard components. I’m talking about Hefeweizen and Saison and Witbier here; anything with a significant amount of unmalted wheat in the grist.

If you’re trying to build a beer and food pairing for a dinner party or a beer dinner, it helps to be able to think through these things rather than simply judging a beer by its colour. These things can be designed from the ground up, but you need the information to do it properly.