Craft Beers

Filed in Food and Wine by on June 2, 2014

Beer-Pairing-FinalSummer in the Midwest means three months of backyard parties, patio dining and cabin-casual meals. For many folks, it also means quaffing a cold brew, or two, with their grub.

Increasingly, that beer is from a local craft brewery.

“Craft beer has taken off in the recent years because people want more from their beer. They want more flavor. They want a story behind it. They want to know where their beer (and food) comes from,” explains Patrick Sundberg, owner and founder of Jack Pine Brewery in Baxter, Minn.

Dustin Brau of Brau Brothers Brewing Co. puts it more simply: “Craft beer tastes better.”

Jack Pine and Marshall-based Brau Brothers are two of the more than 50 craft breweries in Minnesota. Add to that another 50-plus breweries in Wisconsin and the Fargo area, and it’s a beer boom of Paul Bunyan proportions.

That boom is a boon for beer-centric restaurants like Brew Ales & Eats in Perham. Many of their 24 taps are local craft beers, says Britt Belquist, co-owner of the eatery.

Beyond yellow

Craft beers come in a dizzying array of styles. Most people are familiar with the mass-produced American-style lagers, sometimes referred to as “yellow beers,” such as Budweiser, Miller High Life and Coors Light.

But that’s just the tip of the brewing iceberg. Brown ales, pale ales, strong ales, India pale ales, extra pale ales, session ales, ambers, Belgians, porters, pilsners, bocks, stouts, wheat beers, imperials, giants, doubles – confused yet?

Beer styles are largely determined by ingredients and process. Different ratios of hops, malts and other grains produce varied colors and flavors. In addition, different styles are fermented in different ways. Ales are top-fermented, which means the yeasts used float to the top. Lagers are bottom-fermented. Temperature, aging and added ingredients also factor into the final product.

Flavor and intensity

Within those styles are many variations in flavor intensity, body and bitterness. That can make beer-food pairing rules nearly impossible, says Brau.

“It’s not as easy as just saying, ‘all right, every stout goes well with this sort of food, or every hefeweizen goes with this type of food,’” Brau explains.

Instead, Brau says, “We look for individual flavors within the beer.”

Sundberg recommends also considering the intensity of flavor. “For example, an imperial IPA would typically be intensely hoppy with a strong bitterness, while a pale ale may be hoppy, but more subtle rather than intense. When pairing food, a hoppy pale ale may pair well with breaded walleye, but an intense imperial IPA could overpower it.”

But where to begin in determining flavors, intensity, etc.? Belquist samples every beer that goes on tap at Brew, but for everyone else, Brau suggests going online and reading breweries’ descriptions of their beers.

“It’s really tough to screw up a beer and food pairing,” he added, “but what you can do is you make it better by just doing a little bit of research.”

Suggested pairings

To save you some time and effort, the experts offered their beer suggestions for the following summer staples:

Burgers: Both brewers suggest a brown ale. Jack Pine makes a Duck Pond Nut Brown Ale, and Brau Brothers offers Ring Neck. Belquist likes a pale ale with some hop flavor. “Burgers are kind of an easy pairing, so they’re kind of fun,” Brau says.

Steak/ribs/BBQ: Brau notes that these bolder flavors can take a bolder beer, like a stout or a smoked beer. “Those are ‘fairly hard to screw up’ beer-pairing foods,” he chuckles.

Walleye: Grab a craft-brewed pilsner or pale lager, Sundberg says. Belquist likes a summer wheat beer with seafood and fish.

Grilled chicken: Sundberg leans toward an American-style wheat beer. Brau actually uses craft beer for flavoring the bird: “That can of beer that you put in the chicken’s butt on the grill, take that can and dump it out and make sure there’s a good craft beer in there, something with a good flavor.” He suggests his Bancreagie Peated Scotch Ale.

Green salad: “It would depend on the type of toppings and dressing,” Sundberg says. His Dead Branch Cream Ale would complement a poppyseed dressing but could be overpowered by an aggressive vinaigrette. “Perhaps if there was a heavy pepper or some bold greens, I would lean perhaps to a saison,” he adds. “Those beers tend to be a bit more flavorful and bold and could stand up to something a bit more aggressive for a salad.”

A lighter salad calls for a lighter intensity beer, Brau says. His Old 56 and White Cap beers pair well with citrus and berry flavors often used with summer greens.

Dessert: Says Sundberg, “My favorite pairing is a bold IPA with caramel cheesecake. The carbonation in the beer helps lift the rich creamy texture of the cheesecake off the palette, so each bite of cheesecake is like a first bite. The aggressive bittering of an IPA is a great contrast to the rich sweetness of the dessert.” Jack Pine offers the Barbwire Imperial IPA, but it isn’t available year-round.

With desserts, Brau thinks in terms of port. “You can go with something that’s chocolately … or you can do something that’s a little on the fruitier side,” he says. A chocolately stout like his Moo Joos pairs well with chocolate desserts and ice cream. A sour beer complements fruit, pie or cake, and its higher carbonation adds a different sensation.

If you’re still not sure, ask an expert. Brew employs a cicerone, which is like a sommelier for beer. And if the menu’s up in the air, Sundberg has a solution: Hornets Nest Honey Lemon Wheat. “It’s light and easy drinking yet has enough flavor to stand up to most summer grilled foods. It’s more of a beer for a season than a beer for food pairing, in my mind. Perfect as a refreshing beer on a warm summer day next to the grill in your back yard.”

by Emily King


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