Hophead: Brooklyn Brewmaster Says In Food Pairing, Beer Is The Answer

Brooklyn Beer brewmaster Garrett Oliver's visit to Whole Foods yesterday afternoon was first and foremost a cooking demonstration with beer pairing suggestions. But as Oliver described how the flavors of each brew complemented each course, he kept returning to a central thesis: When it comes to food pairings, beer is superior to wine.

"Sommeliers' number one question they're asked isn't about, say, 'What's the soil content in Napa Valley? What percentage is shale?'" he said. "No, it's, 'What wine should I serve with Thanksgiving dinner?'

"And the answer is, 'Beer.'"

No argument here.

Throughout, he backed up his argument, pointing out beer's wider range of flavors makes it more adaptable and how its carbonation can cut through even the heaviest sauce.

The class started with a cooking demonstration of Oliver's own spicy crab cake recipe, which balanced the kick of jalapeño and ginger with curry and cool cilantro. (The crab cake recipe and several others are available on Brooklyn's Web site.) With the crab cakes, he paired the very bitter and dry East India Pale Ale, pointing out how the lemongrass and citrus notes stand up well to spicy food. The jalapeños he used turned out to be rather mild, but the point was well-taken nonetheless--and the crab cakes disappeared almost as quickly as the tiny sample glasses.

Next up was the new Local 2, a brown Belgian-inspired strong ale brewed with wildflower honey and dark Belgian candy sugar, with creamy spaghetti carbonara. Even alone, it was a great beer, but the dark fruitiness and caramel sweetness seemed tailor-made for the bacon, and the lively carbonation cut through the thick cream sauce.

"Notice how the caramelized sugar really links up with the bacon," he said. "It's a flavor hook."

He pointed out how caramelization is an important flavor attribute for cooked meats with an amusing hypothetical choice: would you rather have your medium-rare steak grilled or boiled?

The unfiltered golden Local 1 ale was matched with honey-glazed salmon, a pairing that brought out the sweetness of both parties. In fact, I enjoyed the beer quite a bit more than the last time I tried it, no doubt because of the smart pairing.

"Unlike wine pairing, beer is more about harmony and complementing each other's flavors, rather than contrast," he said.

After that he shared a burger recipe (also available on the Brooklyn site) that included cumin, minced onion, red wine and butter chips. The wine and onion I'd probably leave out, but the butter made even the well-done samples juicy. That's a cheat that'll come in handy, as it's pretty easy to overcook a burger when you're drinking beer and trying to keep guests entertained. For the burgers he recommended Brooklyn Lager, a dry-hopped and much fuller-bodied beer than the average lager.

That was all that was on the schedule, but attendees got a nice surprise at the end: samples of the Black Chocolate Stout, a fantastically complex imperial stout with heavily roasted malts. If the dark chocolate balance of sweet and bitter and creamy texture aren't reason enough to sip and savor this excellent beer, the 10 percent ABV oughtta be. Oliver recommended it with desserts, mentioning that the chocolate flavors can complement ice cream (even as a float) or other sweets in the same way that coffee can. But in this case he matched Stilton--a strong, salty, buttery blue cheese--with the stout.

It was an inspired pairing, though one he stumbled upon by accident. It was at a "cheese war," where he was to square off against a wine sommelier in matching beverages to the choices of a cheese master. He'd intended to use a barley wine, but discovered he hadn't brought it--and found that the impy stout stood up marvelously to the Stilton.

Of course, most people associate wine with cheese plates thanks to art openings, weddings and other such events. But when it comes to cheese wars, the brewmaster emphatically declared, "I always win."

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Jesse Hughey
Contact: Jesse Hughey