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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.

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