Chipped: Test Driving Food-Beer Pairings with Seasoned Snacks

One of the more common things I get asked about is beer and food pairings.  While it's true that not every food goes with every beer, it isn't as though you're presented with a secret clipboard upon completion of the Cicerone exam that details the perfect beer for every food.  Individual tastes matter even more in pairing food and beer than they do in simply selecting beers you like - and there, people already act as though you've insulted their mother if you tell them that a certain beer is flawed or isn't generally very good.  Can you imagine trying to convince someone that their favorite beer doesn't pair well with bacon?

In short, I'm afraid that if you ask me about food-beer pairings, there's going to be a lot of me shrugging and telling you to "figure it out for yourself."  I mean, I'll answer the question, too, but it's going to come with a massive caveat of "this is why I think this is good, but you're going to need to try it first."

What I AM more than willing to do, though, is share a methodology for doing it, and (see the picture above) a vehicle for testing out your pairings.

Test Driving Your Pairing

You don't go into battle with an untested rifle - the great military historian and scholar Michael Douglas taught us ALL that lesson in "The Ghost and the Darkness."  The lesson applies here, too.  Before you go planning a beer dinner or pairing event, take the time to work out some good combinations: rules of thumb for flavors and approaches that help you scale up your preferences.

For this, we have an outstanding tool: the seasoned snack.

Chips are my favorite.  They come in every kind of flavor, seasoning, and configuration these days.  And I was offered a perfect opportunity to highlight their utility as a pairing tool when I was very kindly shipped a box with four bags of kettle chips from Neal Brothers (my blog yields effectively no revenue, but it yields free chips - that's a massive win, in my book).

The staggering advantage that a lot of people overlook here is that all you're doing in pairing is pairing flavors - not dishes or meals or entire beers.  Flavors.  So why not use something small, with frank and obvious flavors, to test drive your pairing?

Thinking About Pairing

You can write entire books about food pairings (and many have), but as a starting point, you're doing one of two things: amplifying or complementing.  

  • Amplifying is effectively just mimicking the flavors of one thing in the other - so, drinking a Belgian Dubbel with a baked spiced honey ham, since both have burnt sugar and clove flavors.  
  • Complementing is using offset flavors to yield contrasting (or even synergistic) results when two individual flavors come together - like drinking a NE IPA with a fennel salad, since citrus and anise are a classic complementary flavor pairing.

The other element isn't direction, but magnitude of the flavors: loud or soft?

  • Loud are assertive, obvious flavors - like bitterness in a DIPA or fresh-ground pepper on a steak.
  • Soft are secondary or tertiary flavors - like tartness in a Kolsch or piquant flavors in Gouda cheese.

Make some decisions - then try them out on things that exhibit those flavors!  Once you have a basic pairing toolkit and some experience, the whole thing gets a lot easier, and as your experience builds so will your confidence and accuracy.

Practical Pairing

Putting this into a practical context, let's think about our four bags of Neal Brothers chips.  They're all kettle chips, so they'll have a baseline level of fat and starch content.  After that, things get weird (in a good way):

Pink Himalayan Sea Salt: The touch of salt pairs very well with a grainy-sweet and slightly-fruity Kolsch, and the subtle flavors of each aren't overwhelmed.  

Spicy Srirachup: These were a big hit at an Oktoberfest party I brought them to - the rich, bready, caramel notes from the beer contrasted very well with the bright and spicy Sriracha notes.

Maple Bacon: The maple was surprisingly sweet here, and ended up being a great pairing with an English Bitter.  The flinty, bitter beer and the sweet maple made for a great complementary pairing, and the bacon was a good fit for the earthier notes in the beer.  A great autumn pairing!

Montreal Steak Spice: Surprisingly intense, these took a strong beer to balance them out: luckily, I had one on hand.  Pair them with a Baltic Porter and you'll find the chocolate and pepper balancing each other quite well, with the warm alcohols being offset by the touch of citrus and salt.  It was practically a meal.

The best part is that trying out pairing like this is fast and easy.  No need to pre-make the meal.  Just give yourself some good, basic flavor reference points.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Get Back in the Box: Craft Beer's Confusion Obsession

I wish I had a dollar for every time I've had a brewer or beer geek explain to me how a beer "doesn't really fit in a style" and that I shouldn't try to "label" it as something.  They're not bound by history or convention.  The beer they're drinking is revolutionary, and unique, and "outside the box."  And have you seen the label and packaging?  It was created by a local artist that gets inspiration from looking at photos of antique clocks and antique burlesque while listening to a soundtrack of Gregorian chants before painting in neon Sharpie and sheep's blood.

I say this with full awareness of how it's going to sound to some brewers and beer people: GET BACK IN THE BOX.

I'm Confused

I buy beer frequently.  I buy it in bars, breweries, and tap rooms.  I buy it at the store and the distributor.  And I willingly and full-throatedly admit that I'm confused.

I shouldn't be confused.  I'm a Grand Freaking Master beer judge and Certified Cicerone.  I've spent a decade around some of the most preposterous, pretentious, and promiscuous beers and breweries in the world.  I'm not lacking for context or vocabulary or background information.

But when I read a beer description that says something is "an imperial dry-hopped Munich Helles," I don't know what the hell to make of it.  That's not a thing.  It's like calling something a "no-wheeled self-heating super-compact car."  That's not a car.  It's an oven.

And that's assuming I have a description to go off of in the first place.  It gets worse when I'm just walking around the beer shop.

Beeroglyphics

I literally just got home from buying beer for the beer judge training class that I teach once in a while, and each week I'm in need of three good examples of certain beer styles so that the class can taste a healthy range of beer types and styles before they sit for the Beer Judge Certification Program judging exam.  Every Monday, for eight weeks, I stroll into my local Wegmans with an example or two of each style in mind, head for the beer section, and pick from what is usually a solid selection.

The challenge comes when the specific label I'm looking for isn't on the shelves that day.  

If I know what brewery I'm looking for, I can find it easily.  They're grouped geographically, for the most part, and the brewery name is usually pretty obvious.  But try finding a specific type of beer by just scanning the shelves - it's becoming quite the challenge.

There's minimal readable writing on the packaging, and with the eye-popping artistic expressions on display it's almost impossible to interpret the message and locate a beer by style.  No one should have to risk neural overload and an epileptic seizure just to find the words "Schwarzbier" or "black lager."  Don't get me wrong - the visuals are impressive, but they're a riot of artistic styles, languages, symbols, and fonts.

I'm just looking at a wall of beeroglyphics, and there's nary a beer Rosetta stone in sight.

When Words Fail

And then there's the words themselves, when you can pick them out from the gonzo art show that you've been thrust into.  

Between the ever-more-esoteric beer names, the convoluted label descriptions (when present) about what's in the can/bottle, and what seems to be a willful resistance to put your beer "in the box" by putting a simple style descriptor on it, even the words themselves might not be all that useful.

The terminology ranges from the woefully broad ("hoppy") to the painfully esoteric ("partigyle") to the logically absurd ("white Stout").

And you also have to wrestle with breweries' notion that identifying something with a beer style (whose name, history, and implications might actually tell you a lot about what you're buying) seems pedestrian and "unoriginal" (ironically, craft beer's original sin...).

At a certain point you're waiting to find out that the breweries were just gaslighting you.  

Unique Isn't Always Useful

Look, I get it: you're in a competitive marketplace.  There are only so many beer names out there.  You want to go along with beer geeks that cherish a non-conformist view of their beer.

But you're probably also losing customers.  

1. Some of them aren't going to have any idea what the hell you're selling.  If they're looking for something specific, they may or may not get the inside-baseball hop pun in your name that is supposed to cue them in that you're selling an IPA ("Lupulin-side the Actors Studio, anyone?").  You know what they recognize?  "Lagunitas IPA."

2. Confusion leads to reversion.  If a customer is scanning the shelves and can't tell what your beer is because it's described as a "modernist take on a classic Scandinavian Steinbier with Trappist influences and post-colonial American dry hops," then your prospective customer is probably going to say "screw it" and pick up a case of Bell's Brown Ale.  Know why?  He/she knows what that is.

3. Confusion (maybe) leads to revulsion.  Selling someone something that they might not understand might lead to a life-changing experience for them.  Or it might just lead them to realize that they thought they were getting one thing and you've actually (and accidentally) sold them the wrong thing, however they define it.  

Unique isn't always good. But you know what's always good?  Good.

I hate to say it, but these days (and if you're a regular reader, you've read my thoughts on this before) I'm much more impressed by solid brewing practice and clean, clear flavor profiles than I am the next "cool" beer.  

Please Help

If you're a brewer: dial it back.  Give us a clue what's in there.  If it's good, we'll order another one, I promise.  And seriously, don't be unwilling to brew a beer in a conventional/historical style because you're worried that we won't buy it - there's a big crowd of people who love a Maibock.  Brew one, call it that, and see what happens.

If you're a beer drinker: disconnect.  Let's address this from the demand side.  Show that you're unwilling to spend ten minutes in internet research to make a simple beer choice.  Vote with your wallet, and maybe we'll convince breweries that clarity is worth something.

And for those who are going to say, "what's the point of pointing this out?," let me just say that sometimes the absurd needs to be labeled as such before anything can change.  A problem is only a problem once we decide it's something we'd like to fix.  So maybe I am just muttering into the void here, but maybe not.  I'll take the risk. What else was I doing this morning?

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).