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Beer first, food second

Deciding which foods taste best with which beers is a delicious, ever-evolving experiment

When Timothy Schafer, chef and owner of Tim Schafer's Cuisine in Morristown, N.J., sets out to create an elegant dish featuring beer, he starts with the beer first.

"It's not like you go, 'chicken,' and I go, 'porter,' " Schafer says. "I go, 'porter,' and I think 'mushrooms … rosemary … maybe chicken will go with this.' "

Likewise, Tom Peters of Monk's Café in Philadelphia plans a beer dinner by sitting down at his desk with beer in front of him. "I'll pop a beer, take a sip and start to think about what food will work with this," he says.

When you read about cooking with beer and serving beer with food, the writer usually places the emphasis on the food first, the beer second. But as homebrewers, you can no doubt see the logic in starting with the beer, since you've probably got quite a bit of it on hand.

Open up your "beer refrigerator," or head down to the beer cellar, and start planning your menu. That raspberry wheat ale that made you realize one pint of fruit beer is plenty? Mix it with some vinegar and herbs for a salad dressing. The smoked porter that drew raves in the club-only competition? Perhaps barbecue is in order tonight. A 3-year-old barley wine? Serve it with a plate of strong cheeses to cap off the meal.

"Beer cuisine" is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot. While it usually refers to food that's made with beer, beer can be the ideal companion to many beer-less dishes as well, and about half of the recipes featured in The Brewpub Cookbook don't include beer as an ingredient.

Deciding which foods taste best with which beers is a delicious, ever-evolving experiment. But how to start? The most important thing to remember is simply to think about what you're tasting. Sip a beer slowly and determine the dominant flavor characteristics. Is the maltiness sweet or dry? Are the hops flowery or citric? Does the yeast contribute a distinctive flavor? Does the sharpness of alcohol coat your tongue?

Next, think about how you would like the beer to relate to the food. The goal is to find a balance, and the keywords to keep in mind are "cut," "complement" and "contrast." You may want to cut a dish that is very rich or buttery by serving it with a light, hoppy beer such as a pilsner. A perfect complement to anything chocolate-flavored is a cream stout or strong stout. And a pale ale will contrast nicely with the hearty, smoky flavors of a barbecue dish.

Just as you cannot follow certain kinds of beers with others in a beer tasting, drinking the wrong beer with certain foods will detract from both the food and the beer. Most often, the flavors in the beer overwhelm those in the food, but the reverse can also occur. A malty beer such as a Scottish ale will lose its flavor next to an astringent salad dressing such as a vinaigrette. Likewise, a bite of Limburger cheese will overwhelm all but the strongest beers.

Keep in mind that matching food with beer is not an exact science, even for the pros. "There are no set rules," says Alan Skversky, regional executive chef for the Arizona-based Hops! Bistro & Brewery restaurants. "Every time we try a different beer with a different food, we're blown away by the possibilities."

Below are some suggestions on which foods to serve with certain beers.

Golden or blonde ale, American wheat ale, lightly hopped lagers. Since these beers lack both maltiness and hoppiness, they work best as thirst-quenchers. Try them with super-hot food, such as blackened redfish. Once your tongue has been assaulted with hot spices, it will no longer be able to appreciate an intricately flavored beer, anyway.

Weissbier, dunkelweiss. You want to be able to enjoy the flavors of the yeast, so stick with delicate foods, such as a delicate soup or pasta or light cheeses. These beers also work well with lightly flavored vegetarian dishes, such as grilled vegetables, or light chicken dishes.

Amber ale. A good all-around beer for any food that isn't sweet -- something sweet will detract from the maltiness in the beer. It complements sandwiches, hearty soups and pizzas. Also a good thirst-quencher for barbecue or Mexican food.

Bitter, pale ale, India pale ale, German/Bohemian pilsners. While hops can kill your tastebuds when paired with many foods, they do make for some particularly good matches -- fried seafood, for example, because hoppiness cuts through grease, or anything with vinegar as a main ingredient. They also complement smoked, boiled, steamed or broiled seafood. And they can enhance the spiciness of highly spiced cuisine. The fruitier pale ales also will complement lamb, beef and game, or try them with liver paté.

English or American brown ale. Hamburgers and sausages are hearty enough for either kind of ale. The English brown may match nicely with smoked fish, while game dishes can stand up to the hoppiness of the American brown.

Porter, dry or oatmeal stout. Think hearty foods -- meat dishes with gravy, barbecue, shepherd's pie, stew. Oysters are also ideal. Both these beers and the brown ales will stand up to stronger cheeses such as sharp cheddar and blue.

Cream or sweet stout, imperial stout. These are made for chocolate, and imperial stout pairs especially well with dark chocolate. Also try chocolate-and-fruit desserts, such as stout cheesecake with raspberry sauce, or something with caramel or pecans.

Vienna lager/Oktoberfest/Mäarzen, dark lager, bock. Like amber ale, these are good all-around food beers, and they're not as filling as ales. The lagers will cut some of the heaviness in sauce-based meat dishes - chicken paprikash, goulash or pork rouladen, for example - and will stand up to their strong flavors. The perfect beers to serve with pretzels and mustard. Sweeter bocks, such as doppelbocks, can complement heartier, spicier desserts, such as pumpkin pie or spice cake.

Fruit beers, lambics. Sweeter fruit beers and fruit lambics can be paired with light fruit desserts, such as souffles or chiffon cake, but sour ones will probably overwhelm fruit flavors. Some people like to drink lambics with dark chocolate. Entrees that are prepared with fruit - i.e., raspberry-glazed duck breast - can pair nicely with fruit beers. Consider enjoying these alone at the end of the meal.

Old ale, barley wine. Most foods don't stand up to these stronger beers, and you'll probably lose the maltiness in the beer as well. Try a really strong cheese or a piece of super-dark chocolate, or serve them alone or with a cigar.

A few more guidelines:

Don't always match like with like. As you can see from the suggestions above, lighter beers tend to go well with lighter foods, heavier beers with heavier foods, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule. And if you're cooking with beer, you don't have to serve the same beer you cooked with alongside the dish. Often, you'll want to serve a beer that has the opposite characteristics of the one you cooked with. For example, chef Skversky finds the yeasty hefeweiss that he uses in his potato soup too "palate-coating" to accompany the soup, and he prefers to serve it with a light, golden ale.

Think ethnic. Try German bratwurst with grilled onions and horseradish with a German dark lager, English stout with steak-and-kidney pie, English brown ales or bitters with mild sausage, or a hoppy American pale ale or pilsner with raw or steamed New England clams.

If you're planning a beer dinner, with a different beer for each course, you need to consider not only how each beer will go with each food item, but how the different beers will follow one another. Don't serve rich, heavy beers, or beers made with herbs and spices, with your first few courses. It's better to serve beers that are lower in alcohol with first courses, and keep the old ales or imperial stouts for the end of the meal. Stick to small portions of beer - many chefs suggest about four ounces per course. Otherwise, you may find your guests snoozing over the entrees. "People lose focus," Schafer says, "plus, beer is so filling."

Once you start experimenting with beer and food pairings, you'll quickly discover that not only does beer enhance the flavor of food, but food enhances the flavor of beer. You will start to pick up the many complexities beer has hidden within it, and as you educate your palate, will begin to develop ideal beer and food pairings on your own.

Here are a few recipes that produce ideal companions to beer. All recipes are from The Brewpub Cookbook, by Daria Labinsky and Stan Hieronymus, copyright 1997, Time-Life Inc.

Beer Cheese Spread
Wynkoop Brewing Co., Denver, Colo.

This is a great cheese spread that's quick and easy to prepare. Wynkoop suggests using its Railyard Ale in the spread, but any full-bodied ale can be used. Its strong flavor can enough to stand up to the biggest, hoppiest beers, even a barley wine. Serve it with crackers, warm pretzels or beer bread.

6 ounces cream cheese, softened
6 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
12 ounces sharp white cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 cup minced green onions
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1/2 cup ale

1. Combine all ingredients except beer in the bowl of a food processor or electric mixer. Mix or blend until everything is well incorporated.
2. Slowly add beer while processor or mixer is running. Place mixture into a crock or serving bowl, and chill for at least 2 hours.

Yield: 1-1/2 pounds

Shepherd's Pie
Gritty McDuff's Brew Pub, Portland, Maine

This hearty main course is a favorite of customers at Gritty McDuff's. Serve it with a dry stout (perhaps the one you prepare it with) or with a porter or brown ale.

1-1/2 pounds lean hamburger
1/3 cup diced onion
1 stalk celery, diced
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon oregano
1-1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper
1 cup stout
Salt and pepper to taste
3 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into big chunks
1/4 cup butter
1/3 cup milk
1/3 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons chives
1 16-ounce can whole kernel corn
2 16-ounce cans creamed corn
Paprika

1. Sauté hamburger, onion, celery, garlic, thyme, oregano, red pepper, stout and salt and pepper until meat is brown. Place sautéed burger mixture in large, shallow casserole dish.
2. Meanwhile, cook potatoes in water. Mash and season with butter, milk, sour cream, chives and salt and pepper.
3. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Drain corn, and mix with creamed corn. Layer corn mixture on burger mixture and spread evenly. Layer on mashed potatoes. Sprinkle paprika lightly over top.
4. Bake for about 20 minutes.

Yield: 8-10 servings

Chocolate Calzone
Vino's Brewpub, Little Rock, Ark.

This is definitely not for the low-cal crowd, but the chocolate-loving sweets-eaters will certainly dig in! You can use a premade pizza dough (enough for 1 l6-inch crust) or pastry dough, or make the pizza dough below - use your bread machine, if you have one. A hazelnut brown ale complements the chocolate perfectly, or try an imperial or cream stout.

1 ball Pizza Dough (see recipe below), or your favorite pizza or pastry dough
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch cinnamon
2 teaspoons shredded coconut
1 cup ricotta cheese
Garnish: chocolate syrup, chopped pecans, powdered sugar

1. Preheat oven to 450ºF.
2. Place dough on a lightly floured surface. Press down and form into a circle. Using a floured rolling pin, roll dough into a 16-inch circle, about 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick. Sprinkle with a pinch of sugar and press it into dough. Cut circle in half.
3. Mix sugar, chocolate chips, vanilla, cinnamon, coconut and ricotta cheese. Place half of mixture on each dough piece. Fold dough over filling. Cut edges of dough so that they are even.
4. Seal edges well with the tines of a fork. Fold approximately 3/8-inch of the edge back over itself. Seal again with the fork, to be sure it's sealed well (or you'll have a real mess).
5. Place on lightly greased baking sheet, and bake until golden brown, approximately 8-10 minutes.
6. Place on plate, and drizzle chocolate syrup in zigzag pattern over calzone. Top with chopped pecans and powdered sugar.

Pizza Dough
1 cup warm water (110ºF-115ºF)
1/4-ounce package dry yeast
3-1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil (less 2 tablespoons measured out separately)

1. Place water in small bowl. Add yeast and stir - a beige mixture should form. Let stand until a light layer of foam forms, approximately 5 minutes.
2. Combine 3 cups flour with salt in large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center, and add yeast mixture and oil. Stir flour into the liquid until it is mixed well and a soft dough forms. Turn the dough onto a floured work surface and knead, slowly adding remaining 1/4 cup flour until the dough is no longer sticky. Knead just until the dough is smooth and elastic and all visible flour is incorporated. (If using a bread machine, instead of steps 1 and 2: Place water in pan in machine. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, flour, salt and yeast, in that order. Start machine, remove dough when dough cycle is completed.)
3. Shape the dough into a ball, and place into another bowl oiled with the 2 tablespoons remaining oil. Roll ball around to coat evenly.
4. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, place in a warm, draft-free location, and let rise until doubled in size. Punch down and knead another minute on floured board before using.

Yield: 4 servings

This story by Daria originally appeared in Brew Your Own magazine. It was a first place place winner (for food) in the writing competition conducted by the North American Guild of Beer Writers. Click here to read her second place story.

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