Rich Higgins on 2009: Year of the Beer

Rich Higgins is president of the San Francisco Brewers Guild and has been brewing professionally in San Francisco for five years. He is also a certified Cicerone and a consultant to the restaurant industry on beer and food pairing. He can be reached at rich [at] richhiggins [dot] com.

2009: Year of the Beer

I hereby declare 2009 to be the Year of the Beer. Why not? Quality beer is incredibly diverse and damned tasty. And even the best beer is relatively affordable--offering flavor, art, and history while setting you back a fraction of what you might pay for comparable quality wine. If your belt has tightened enough that you don't want to buy a bottle of wine at a restaurant, try ordering a bottle of great beer. It's a win-win: you get a great beer, and you're still supporting the restaurant in a way you might not have otherwise.

So the economy's tanking, your favorite restaurant is thinking of cutting back its hours, and you have to drive your bank account a little farther between refuels? Here's how you can tone down your spending without toning down the caliber of your dining and drinking: with beer and food pairing.

I'm talking about good beer, here: American craft beers and quality imports. The way I see it, if a brewery is able to pay for television advertising, they're not spending that money on superior ingredients and brewing technique. They can keep their subsidized corn adjuncts, processed enzymes, and multiple filtrations out of my glass and off of my dinner table.

The good stuff embodies quality, art, and authenticity. These beers make pairing with food easy and economical. Beer is a natural partner with food; Europeans have known this for centuries, but we're just catching on over here. Beer's various ingredients work together to mimic or contrast food flavors, with grain (usually barley, but sometimes other cereals like wheat and rye), hops, and yeast, and sometimes fruits, vegetables, spices, and sugars. All these work together in different preparations and ratios to create the stunning variety of beer styles and flavors.

In short, to brew a beer, starchy grains that have been caramelized or roasted are steeped and cooked with water, and the resulting sweet sugars are balanced by the hops' herbal, bitter, and aromatic qualities. It's similar to making a tea or a broth that shares some of the same flavors as many foods: bread, caramel, and roast from the barley; bitter, herbal, fruit, and oils from the hops; and fruit, spice, and alcoholic heat from the yeast fermentation. Essentially, it's the ratio and types of barley, hops, yeast and water that makes one beer different from the next, each offering a different combination of familiar flavors to be more than the sum of its parts.

Beer pairs so well with food because the brewing process closely mimics the cooking of food--the whole "liquid bread" thing is not too farfetched. To top it all off, beer is carbonated, and so the fizziness does wonders to lift flavors and aromas of both food and beer from the palate to your nose, allowing you to smell and experience flavors in a very visceral way. The carbonation also scrubs your palate clean, cutting through fat and intense flavors, helping to refresh your palate for the next bite of food.

To pair beer with food, take a look at the food flavors that will be served on your plate, whether you're dining at home or ordering off the menu at a restaurant. Then think about flavors and textures in beer that would be a good match.

For example, a salad with greens, roasted beets, cheese, herbs, and a vinaigrette is perfect with the coriander and bitter orange peel of Belgian witbiers and the tropical fruit and clove spice of Bavarian-style hefeweizens.

Next up: soup. Broccoli-cheese, cream of mushroom with white wine, and potato-leek are all great with the gentle bitterness and subtle tree fruit flavors of golden ales--think British bitters and pale ales. If you prefer split pea soup with ham, a real stunner is a rauchbier, a German smoked lager.

With a main course like pasta with seared scallops, pancetta, rapini, and a brown butter sauce, I would reach for a light-bodied, lower-intensity beer that won't overwhelm the more delicate flavors in the food. A peppery, citrusy Belgian saison would work great, though my favorite pairing with shellfish is a German schwarzbier. Its black, roasted malts, extremely light body, and crisp dryness work fabulously with the briny, sweet, butteriness of shellfish. For a richer main course, say, grilled hanger steak with a red-wine mushroom sauce, frites, and roasted shallots, try enjoying it with the earthy, toffee, cinnamon, and plum flavors of a Belgian abbey dubbel or Belgian dark ale.

Beer and cheese are absolutely blissful in each other's company, and who am I to keep these two fermented staples of my fridge apart? As far as pairing flavors, cheeses vary as much as beers do, but overall, beer has the same earthy and nutty flavors of cheese, and it's hard to go wrong with a pairing. To play it safe, I usually recommend Belgian golden ales' earthiness, herbal-ness, and carbonation, but if you like really hoppy beers, the bitter-sweetness of piney, sticky, grapefruity American IPAs is just beautiful with rich, washed-rind cheeses. And for desserts, try cutting their fat and sweetness with the high alcohol and sweet intensity of an American barley wine or barrel-aged ale, and if there's chocolate anywhere near an imperial stout, get ready for a match made in heaven.

So, here's to 2009, the Year of the Beer. Make friends with a quality beer, and then introduce it to the foods you love. May it treat you well, affording you phenomenal, luxurious, gourmet experiences, letting you live the real high life.