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An event called “Paired” at the Great American Beer Festival will offer visitors a chance to experience the flavors of matched brews and foods. (Provided by the Brewers Association)
An event called “Paired” at the Great American Beer Festival will offer visitors a chance to experience the flavors of matched brews and foods. (Provided by the Brewers Association)

In the food world, pairing meals with wine is almost second nature — a crisp Chardonnay with wild salmon, a deep red Cabernet with a filet mignon. But increasingly, chefs are tossing the vino and grabbing for a brewski.

The Brewers Association’s Executive Chef Adam Dulye makes a convincing argument for pairing with beer in his new book, co-written with Michael Harlan Turkell, called “The Beer Pantry: Cooking at the Intersection of Craft Beer and Great Food.” 

A few decades ago, Dulye was a young cook at the Manor Vail Lodge, “working endless hours prepping for lengthy wine pairing dinners,” when he decided to try what at the time must have seemed radical. Why not pair these fancy dishes with beer?

Dulye, who was hired by the Boulder-based Brewers Association in 2015, is also the curator of the Great American Beer Festival’s event within the event called Paired, advertised as “the ultimate culinary and craft beer experience.”

Provided by the Brewers Association
An expert talks about the beer during the 2018 Great American Beer Festival’s Paired event.

Paired, which requires a separate ticket, partners two dozen independent craft brewers with 30 acclaimed chefs from throughout the United States, Australia and Mexico. 

Chefs create 48 dishes that are paired with 48 distinct beers. The small meals are served with 1-ounce pours of beer, allowing attendees to try everything from New Hampshire’s Northwoods Brewing Co.’s Hazy IPA paired with a smoked chicken wing from Chicago’s Swill Inn to a barrel-aged gose from Baltimore’s Union Craft Brewing Co. paired with a rock shrimp and whitefish ceviche from St. Louis’s Sidney Street Café. You can find the entire menu here.

Ryan Wibby, owner of Wibby Brewing in Longmont, will see his brews paired with dishes from chef Nathan Anda of The Partisan restaurant in Washington. 

Wibby’s Throwing Stone Stein Beer — a beer made by tossing hot stones into the brewing process — will be paired with a chile-braised hog on a lard tortilla. Also, Wibby’s barrel-aged double dunkel will be paired with wagyu tartare on toasted sourdough.

“It sounds very interesting,” said Wibby, who hasn’t tasted the dishes yet. “It will be fun to see what flavor notes are diminished or enhanced with the beer.”

Wibby used to work at a restaurant that would put on beer vs. wine dinners, and the customers always chose beer as the victor.

“Beer always wins because there is so much more wide range of flavors than wine,” he said. “It can be so much more dynamic.”

So how does the average beer drinker pair brews with food? 

“Beer is fuel for food, a companion made to pair and flatter flavors, not detract from them,” Dulye writes in the book. “Certain beer and food combinations work just as innately as benchmark wine pairings, such as Champagne and caviar or Zinfandel and short ribs.”

Dulye said the rules of beer pairing are much more relaxed than wine pairings. Wibby adds that there’s no real science behind beer pairings.

“It’s just trial and error,” he said. “Everyone has their own flavor profiles. There is no real wrong way to go about it. You don’t have to have a Cicerone degree or formal training. It’s just making sure you know how to focus and concentrate on the different flavors that are brought out by the food and beer pairing.”

As Dulye writes in his book, beer’s carbonation and bittering agents cleanse the palate in a different way than the tannins and acidity from wine.

“Thanks to the wide range of ingredients available to craft brewers, they are able to dial in flavors that winemakers can’t,” Dulye writes.

Folks looking to pair beer with food should start with both a beer and a dish that they love, Dulye said. 

“One of the biggest starting things is having familiar flavors,” he said. “You then have that base. You already know what it tastes like.”

Don’t use a style of beer you aren’t familiar with or don’t like. If you are not into hoppy beers, don’t grab an IPA. Don’t like sours? Stay away from those mouth-puckering beers. Also, pairing is easier when you can describe what you taste. But don’t get hung up on the lingo; use language you are familiar with, he said.

Here are some basic flavor building blocks that can make your pairing experience a breeze: 

Crisp and clean. Beer styles: Blonde ale, helles, pilsner, amber lager. These are lighter-colored beers with more carbonation, and they pair well with lightly toasted foods. “Things like biscuits, or with super clean foods, like sushi or summer vegetables — tomatoes, peas, radishes,” Dulye said.

Hoppy and bitter. Beer styles: Amber, IPA, pale ale, imperial IPA, hazy IPA or fresh-hopped beer. These can be challenging because there are so many versions of hoppy, which can be piney or citrusy, bitter or floral, subtle or overwhelming. Dulye recommended dishes that are more contradictory to the palate — spicy, fatty, acidic. “If you have a classic American IPA, it is great to combine that with heat, like Colorado green chile. The IPA will counteract heat on the palate. A hazy IPA is the opposite. Pair that with a good pâté dish or with something like ice cream.”

Malty and sweet. Beer styles: American brown ale, dunkel, American amber lager, Scotch ale, Belgian-style dubbel. These beers, made with roasted malts, develop caramel flavors and toffee notes. They can complement foods with a savory aroma or taste, he writes, “especially roasted, glazed and braised, rich foods that need a little sweet touch to balance them out.”

Rich and roasty. Beer styles: Brown ale, imperial stout, milk stout, oatmeal stout, porter, schwarzbier. These dark beers have flavors of bourbon, vanilla and chocolate. A robust meat dish is always a good idea, but Dulye suggests trying something different. “I like to flip it around. Let the beer be the weight of the dish,” he said. “A classic stout with a stew is always good. But you can enjoy these beers year-round. Have something light with them, roasted beets, a fennel dish. If you are going the salad route, try grilled romaine.” 

Sour and tart. Beer styles: American brett, American sour, Flanders ale, gose, lambic. These beers are tart, funky, acidic and jammy. Dulye recommends aged meats, assertive fruit flavored-meals and strong dairy dishes. “It’s a good idea to protect your palate with these,” Dulye said. “Get some fatty dishes, something with olive oil. Pork, duck dishes work well. Get something to coat the palate to not have all this sour attacking your taste buds. Also, stone fruits are good — peaches, nectarines.”

Fruity and spicy. Beer Styles: Belgian blond ale, hefeweizen, saison, tripel. “These are great because they have the high carbonation levels and they have some really good flavors going on. They can be approached in a lot of ways, like rosé in a wine. They can go well with some meat dishes. Or you can drink them to awaken the palate.”