The artful science of beer and food pairings

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

Taste begins with chemistry. Esters, phenols, aldehydes, linear-terpenes, ketones, lactones, thiols, and a host of other compounds lock into olfactory receptors, sending electric pulses through the olfactory bulb and into the inner sanctums of the brain. On the tongue, a different set of chemicals stimulate sensations of bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and umami. These stimuli—smell and taste—are combined in the hippocampus with tactile impressions to form the experience that we call flavor. 

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

Whether beer or food, the chemistry is the same. Alkaloids taste bitter and glutamates taste savory in each. Limonene smells of citrus and geraniol of flowers in both beverage and bite. At the molecular level, the sensory inputs are the same.

But when it comes to pairing beer and food, does knowing the science make the task any easier? How much does chemistry really play into a chef’s consideration of culinary combinations? Is it a matter of molecules? Or is it more an exercise in inspired intuition? When it comes down to it, is pairing beer and food an art or a science?

For Adam Dulye, executive chef at the Brewers Association and culinary mind behind the beer-centric San Francisco eateries The Abbot’s Cellar and The Monk’s Kettle, it is both art and science. It is his view that the experience a chef gives to the diner should be art. “It should be an experience that affects all of your senses and makes you think about other things, perhaps conjures up memories,” Dulye says. “[And] putting that together in the kitchen, in terms of how you get to the things you want to showcase, involves a little bit of science.”

Dulye points to the Maillard reaction as an example. The Maillard reaction is what happens when amino acids react with sugars at elevated temperatures. For food, think toasted bread, fried onions, or the char on a steak. With beer, the reaction occurs when grains are kilned by the maltster. The resulting compounds in each circumstance bring a variety of flavors, from toast and nuts to caramel, roast, and even dark fruit.

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

For a chef, the trick is tying those compounds together. On the beer side, one has to consider the type and amount of kilned malts that make up the grist. Is the character dry and biscuity or sweet and fruity? On the food side, the consideration is preparation; how those Maillard products are being produced, and what kind of flavor they will deliver.

Mastering Maillard is, according to Dulye, one way chefs can utilize science to give guests an artfully transcendent experience. “Are you using a dry heat method? Are you cooking it in a pan where you’re basting it with butter and actually getting some caramelization of the milk solids in the butter?” Dulye asks. “That’s where the science part kind of comes into that.”

Jared Rouben is a former chef-turned-brewer of culinarily inspired beers at Chicago’s Moody Tongue Brewing Company. He compares making beer to cooking: both brewer and chef are manipulating ingredients with time and temperature. The same rules apply in the kitchen and the brewery.

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

For Rouben, the science lies in balancing the five basic tastes: sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and umami. He approaches a beer in the same way he would a dish, calling upon known taste interactions—such as sweet cutting sour or sour boosting umami—to create balance and harmony in beers like Truffle Pilsner and Lemon Saison.

Rouben brings the same sensibility to pairing beer with food. Rather than squeezing a lemon over seafood, he suggests serving it with his lemon saison. The tart acid in the beer serves to enhance the meaty umami of the fish and, together with the smell of lemon and the tender texture of the fish, the combination creates a complete flavor image. And it’s in the creation of those flavor images that one finds the art of pairing.

Next page: Surly’s approach & pairing at the molecular level

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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.