The artful science of beer and food pairings

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Surly Brewing Company executive chef Jorge Guzman // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Surly Brewing Company executive chef Jorge Guzman also approaches beer pairings like extra ingredients to season a dish. A German gose, for example, has a modest hint of salt. With saltiness coming from the beer, the chef can add less salt to the dish. “There are some dishes where we will omit a certain ingredient that would complete the dish’s flavor profile, but that’s what we’re getting from the beer,” Guzman explains. “The beer will bring that element to the dish.”

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Food and beer at Surly’s fine dining restaurant, The Brewer’s Table // Photo by Aaron Davidson

At Surly’s fine-dining restaurant, The Brewer’s Table, Guzman uses this tactic often. He describes a foie gras that he served with pickled apples and Brussels sprouts. The pickles brought a lot of sweetness, but not the level of acid that was needed to balance the richness of the foie. So Guzman paired the dish with Pentagram, allowing the sour, wild-fermented beer to bring the extra bit of acidity needed to fill the gap and cleanse the diner’s palate.

But what of all those molecules? Is anyone approaching pairing at the level of chemical compounds? None of the chefs I talked to were doing it, but Dulye suspects that it may be happening. Molecular gastronomy is a growing trend in cooking. But he warns that such a narrow focus can bring its own set of issues.

“That [molecular] consideration comes in when forming a menu, a dish or a pairing,” Dulye explains. “But in the execution of it, it comes back to that element of art. Everyone looking at the same painting or the same plate are all going to have different experiences with it. If you focus on something as specific as geraniol or a particular hop oil, and pinpoint for that, you can take people through it, describe it, and try to get them to pick up on it, but they may miss their own pairing moment trying to find what you’re telling them.”

For Dulye, the heart of a chef’s job is to cook so that people can have an experience. The chemistry has a purpose for the person creating the menu, but most of what goes on stays in the kitchen. The science is there in the backbone, but it gets omitted from the front-of-house experience.

Speaking of that experience, how much does the enjoyment of a pairing depend on the work of the chef, and how much of it comes from setting, service, mood, and company?

Related Post – First look: Surly’s fine dining restaurant, Brewer’s Table

“I think that plays a lot into it,” says Guzman, describing the dining experience at The Brewer’s Table. “I think people who aren’t expecting it are kind of blown away. […] We have really highly trained people up there talking about food and beer and understanding what it’s doing. Then you have the chefs that are taking the time to make very specific dishes for these pairings.”

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Food and beer at Surly’s fine dining restaurant, The Brewer’s Table // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Rouben believes that people enjoy a pairing better when they know the story behind it. “I think when you just put a food and beverage in front of someone and walk away, it can be confusing,” he says. “They know to consume it, but they don’t know why this dish was paired with this beer or why this beer was paired with this dish.” A proper introduction of the beer and the food provides a platform for understanding how they should approach a pairing from the flavor standpoint. With that understanding, each diner can build his or her own experience of a pairing.

Each of the chefs I spoke with mentioned storytelling as being integral to the art of pairing. It’s the notion of curating an experience—of highlighting different elements of food and beer to take guests on a flavor journey of sorts.

That story begins with plating and presentation, Dulye says. “People eat with their eyes first,” says Dulye. “They also drink beer with their eyes first.” The story can also be expanded to include connections beyond the plate and glass. “One of the great things that you can do with beer and food is that you can weave them together through the stories,” Dulye continues. “Because of the relationships that happen—from everybody who is growing the food, to sourcing the food, to cooking the food, to brewing the beer—it’s all coming from the same area of wanting to tell a story.”

So is pairing an art or is it a science? “The two go hand in hand,” says Rouben. “You can’t have one without the other.” The intuitive ability to build inspired combinations of aroma, taste, and flavor only comes with practice and a thorough understanding of raw ingredients, brewing process, and cooking methods. Like jazz improvisation, you can’t riff unless you know the scales and the theory.

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About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.