In France, kissing a person’s cheeks three times is lower brow than two pecks. And so it is with beer and wine; when it comes to the pecking order of beverages, beer is to wine as Debbie Does Dallas is to My Fair Lady.
Wings, hamburgers, nachos, ballpark hotdogs, and cheap cheddar call for beer — any beer — while well-hung tenderloin, wild mushroom tart, slide-down-your-throat raw oysters, and white truffle shavings sprinkled on a bed of angel hair pasta all say wine. And not just any wine, but specific styles of wine. Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Puligny-Montrachet. Krug. Sassicaia, perhaps.
Or at least, that’s the public perception. But a powerful undercurrent of countercultural verve is swelling within foodie circles. And at the root of it all is enthusiasm for serious suds.
“Beer and food dinners are huge in the US, and they are building momentum here in Canada too,” says Troy Burtch, a beer blogger and a director of Taps: The Beer Magazine. “Toronto Beer Week and Vancouver Craft Beer Week both premiered this year, during which there were lots of great food and beer pairing events.”
Troy and a broadening clutch of other beer enthusiasts who don’t resemble Norm off Cheers are arguing beer can be every bit as exciting as wine as a fine food accompaniment – once you get to know the styles available. And learn to follow certain rules.
But why the age-old stigma toward beer?
“Beer is a peasant drink. It was made by pretty much everyone way back when. Anyone with extra grain could brew the stuff. You didn’t need much,” says Joel Manning, brewmaster at Mill Street Brewery in Toronto.
Beer is probably the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world, brewed since 9500 BC when cereal was first farmed. In the simplest sense, brewing beer involves taking grain — usually malted barley, but wheat, maize, and rice work too — mashing it with hot water to convert the starches to sugar, then draining the sweet liquid off, flavouring it with hops or other ingredients, and letting yeasts (wild or cultured) convert the sugar to alcohol.
Voilà. Beer. And to this day, prices still reflect beer’s humble beginnings.
While top wines fetch thousands of dollars per bottle, the most expensive beers in the world sell for hundreds. If you want to talk specifics, the highest-priced wine to date went under hammer at Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong last November when three bottles of Château Lafite-Rothschild 1869 went for $236,138 each.
Meanwhile, the most expensive beer in the world sold last summer for $800 per bottle. Granted, most beer doesn’t appreciate with age like wine does. Instead, it just rots. But still, new vintages of top wines sell for far more than top-tier fresh brew.
Supprting beer’s lowbrow image is the fact that $800 beer seems more like a bad party joke tha’n a status symbol or connoisseur’s dream. The 12 limited edition bottles, called “The End of History,” were made by Scotland’s BrewDog brewery. Each bottle was packaged inside a dead animal — apparently road kill preserved by a taxidermist. Nice. The beer is 55 per cent alcohol and the lot sold out within a day of going on the market. Personally, I would rather spend the money on a few bottles of 1996 Bollinger.
Nevertheless, there’s no shortage of people trying to ratchet up beer’s image. Several months ago, I went to an event called “The Street Fight” in Toronto, which pitted beer against wine with gourmet fare. I was on the judging panel with one other sommelier, two beer pros, and a classical music expert (no idea.)
In one corner was Mill Street brewmaster Joel, with 25 years of brewing experience and numerous awards under his belt. In the other was seasoned sommelier Peter Bodnar-Rod representing 13th Street Wines — one of the better wineries in Ontario. The challenge: Who could come up with better matches for a series of courses?
One of the first plates was a mini Oktoberfest sausage on a pretzel bun with grainy mustard and braised sauerkraut. Of course, it worked best with the beer, which was a clean, fresh Mill Street Pilsner. Didn’t work at all with the 13th Street Cuvée 13 Rosé 2007 for about 20 reasons that begin and end with flavour.
What did pair fabulously with wine was the crab cake with double smoked bacon, ripe avocado and arugula drizzled with a citrus aioli. It lifted the 13th Street June’s Vineyard Riesling 2009 to dizzying heights, while the wine cut the richness of the dish beautifully. In short, what happened was that one-plus-one-equals-three thing.
Then beer won another round when the crab cake with green papaya salad and Thai curry sauce was served with Mill Street’s Lemon Tea Beer. The experience was like witnessing John and Yoko’s famous “bed-in” for the first time. A bit obvious perhaps, but sensually refreshing nonetheless — and fleetingly riveting.
Then came the pan-roasted Angus beef tenderloin topped with a brûlée of pungently aromatic double cream brie and cooked spinach on the side. I thought all joy was lost when it was washed down with Mill Street Oktoberfestbier. Meanwhile, other judges argued the caramelized flavours of the beer reflected those of the dish for a perfect pairing. I obviously disagreed. The drink was far too dilute for the dish. I wanted something more exciting with this course.
Enter 13th Street Essence Pinot Noir 2009. Instant oomph. Instant guttural glory. Instant memory of reds from the Côte d’Or. Which is not surprising, given this Canadian wine was made by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Colas, who earned his stripes in Northern Burgundy. He was head winemaker at Domaine Laroche, a large producer in Chablis, crafting internationally award-winning wines for a decade at that esteemed estate. And having sampled some red wines in barrel with him this summer in the Niagara region, this writer is convinced Monsieur Colas is taking Ontario wines up a notch.
But back to the dish. The strong flavours of the beef and cheese wound beautifully around the classic barnyard funk and sassy sophistication of the Pinot Noir. It walked that razor edge between disgusting and divine — as all great foods do. Mesmerizing match. I couldn’t believe the judges missed that. But then again, not everyone likes sea urchin either. To some degree, gastronomy — like sex appeal — comes down to personal taste.
The evening also drove home the fact that beer and wine are not comparable. Beer is far more dilute than wine, it is generally sweet and bitter in varying degrees, and it’s effervescent.
“Sweetness in beer is washed away by saliva, while bitterness in beer plateaus on the palate after about a pint. So you don’t know how the brewmaster intends the beer to taste until that point,” explains Manning.
That’s not a big help for beer tasting, is it. And it makes the drink a moving target as a food accompaniment.
Meanwhile, wine is an entirely different animal. You can taste the winemaker’s intent in a single swirl, sip and spit. And as a beverage, it’s more potent ounce per ounce, it has sharper acidity, only reds display bitterness, it’s more often dry than sweet, and bubbles aren’t the norm.
The only similarity between the beverages is that they can each be fine food partners if you put some thought into what you’re doing. And the most important guideline to remember is to match the weight of the beverage with that of the dish.
Lighter beer styles, specifically lagers, pilsners and wheat beers, tend to pair well with lighter fare such as salads, fish and seafood. They’re also great with spicy fare for the guzzle-factor. Steam Whistle Pilsner from Steam Whistle Brewery in Ontario is a great light beer for food. It yields a clean, crisp taste, subtle notes of hops and bread dough, and lively palate-cleansing effervescence.
Fuller-bodied beers, such as ale and bock beer, work nicely with heavier fare such as pork schnitzel and mashed potatoes, sausages, or even duck. I like the Hermannator Ice Bock from Vancouver Island Brewery for its richness, warmth and roasted malt notes layered with hints of molasses and prune.
And more robust styles of beer such as porter and stout usually fare best with roasted and grilled meats — the hallmark notes of chocolate, caramel, coffee and toasted grains in these brews stand up well to caramelized juices and grill marks.
That said, there are exceptions that prove the rule. Guinness, that dry Irish stout with the thick, creamy head is actually a great match for oysters. And porter — such as Longboat Double Chocolate Porter from Phillips Brewing Co. in BC — is a classic accompaniment for chocolate.
This whole food and beer pairing game works the same way as food and wine matching. Lighter-bodied wines such as Champagne, Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Grigio pair nicely with mild-flavoured foods. Mid-weights like wooded Chardonnay, Merlot and Chianti work nicely with slightly heavier fare such as fried foods, pastas and pizzas. And heavyweights such as Amarone, Shiraz, and Zinfandel are best with full-throttle cheeses and fire-licked foods off the barbecue.
Moving to specifics, I’ll leave you with some classic beer and wine matches.
Food Beer Match Wine Pairing
Caesar salad Pale Ale Wooded Chardonnay
Roast turkey Bock Pinot Noir
Dark chocolate Porter Port
Grilled rib-eye steak English Bitter Cabernet Sauvignon
Pepperoni pizza Pilsner Chianti
Oysters Stout Champagne
Spicy pork sausages Brown ale Carmenere
Grilled shrimp Wheat beer Vouvray
Barbecued ribs Dopplebock or “double” bock Zinfandel
Curry Lager Viognier
Cheesecake Fruit beer Gewürztraminer