Beer and Food: A match made in heaven

With all the variety available in beer flavours, the relationship between food and beer has intensified and it doesn’t look like they’ll be breaking up anytime soon.

By Linda Cotrina

Beer Nuts, a recipe in David Ort's The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook.

Beer Nuts, a recipe in David Ort’s The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook.

IPA Guacamole. Porter Gingerbread. Oak-aged Old Ale Ice Cream. All these three foods have one thing in common; they use beer as an ingredient and were created by David Ort, author of The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook (2013).

Ort, who is also the creator of the popular food blog, Food with Legs, was a picky eater as a kid.  Around the age of 16, he began cooking as a hobby when an older cousin advised him that if he made the food himself, he’d like it. Simple enough!

Fifty-two of 74 recipes in Ort’s book use beer as an ingredient, proving there’s more to do with beer than drink it.

Beer is a great partner for food and there are a lot of different and interesting ways to use it. There are broader ranges of flavours in beer than there are in wine that allow it to be matched with anything and everything.

Looking at it from a food chemistry perspective, one of the things why beer works well with all types of food that wine can’t do is deal with a chemical phenomenon called the Maillard reaction, says Jordan St. John, Sun Media’s national beer columnist.

A Maillard reaction can be summed up as a browning chemical reaction between an amino acid and a sugar. It is what creates the sear on a steak or the crisp skin on a roast chicken and that golden brown character that characterizes so much sought after flavour is also developed in kilning malt, says St. John.

“If you roast a chicken, when the skin becomes brown and crackly, it’s actually developing a Maillard flavour,” said St. John. “Wine is just grape juice that ferments and there isn’t much in the way of chemical change because the roasted grain used to make beer already supports Maillard flavours that you can match in food.”

In addition, the carbonation in beer has the ability to lift fat from the palate, something wine doesn’t do. “If you’re eating something really rich, the scrubbing actions from the carbonation in the beer is going to reset your palate,” St. John said. “Every bite is going to be like the first bite and in some ways it’s a better experience.”

Ort says cut, complement and contrast are the elements to look for in a beer when pairing it with food.  Cut is the carbonation in the beer that wipes the fat and refreshes your palate, as St. John mentions above. Complement is trying to match the flavours in the beer and the food so that they elevate each other.

“Contrast are things like IPA hoppiness contrasting with rich flavours and salty flavours,” he said.

You shouldn’t cook with beer you don’t drink. For a recipe to be a success, Ort says it’s more important to think about the sauce of your dish, not the protein—that’s where the flavours of the dish are that will be matched well (or not) with the flavours in the beer.

“I wanted to make sure the recipes respected the flavours of craft beer,” Ort said.

Pairing beer with food can be easier than pairing wine with food because of the parallel flavours between the two, says Mirella Amato, beer educator, Beerology founder and Canada’s first Master cicerone.

“Because of craft beer, we have so many more flavours to pair with,” Amato said.

Amato encourages those who are just starting out to notice the intensity of their beer first and then begin to identify some of the parallel flavours.

“What does the beer remind you of? Are there notes that remind you of certain foods that you think will tie in nicely? What are foods that you think will complement?” she said.

When Amato does a beer and food pairing class, she likes to present a series of options: one dish, with about three different beers that work for different reasons.  She wants people to explore different flavours and see what works for them because at the end of the day, there’s no steadfast rule with food pairings, she says.

It’s all about finding what works for you and understanding why you enjoy what you do.

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