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Brewing up new food and beer pairings

It used to be that the word “pairings” automatically turned our thoughts and palates to wine, but the rise in craft beer production, small breweries and brewpubs has brought food and beer pairings to the forefront. About 1,200 of the 2,700 U.S. craft breweries are brewpubs, many of which are honing the art of finding the perfect brew to go with at least some of the dishes on the menu, says Julia Herz of the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo.

Beer is gaining an ever-bigger place at the table when it comes to America’s foodie culture, as evidenced by the rise in beer-related shows on the Food Network, including a recent episode of “Chopped” that challenged chefs to create appetizer, entree and dessert to go with three different beer styles.

“Craft beer picks up where wine leaves off,” Herz says. Americans first learned about pairings in the era of Julia Child, but American dining has grown leaps and bounds beyond that kind of classic French cuisine and many of today’s spicier flavor palates pair perfectly with beer, for a few reasons, she says.

First, the residual sugar in beer does a better job of calming the heat of spicy food, as opposed to most wines that are dry rather than sweet, she says. “In some ways we’re still in the learning stages of what works with what, but we know it’s sweet on heat. The sweetness of the malt literally calms the capsaicin.”

Alternately, hoppy beers bring a bitterness that also melds well with spicy foods, says Sean O’Byrne, owner of Great Waters Brewing in St. Paul, Minn. “A lot of people are used to the American lagers, but spicy food is a fad now, if you will, and right along with that, hoppy beers work really well with the spicy food.”

Then there’s the alcohol content. Higher-proof beverages are more likely to clash with spicy foods, Herz says, and at about 13%, the average wine has more than twice the alcohol content of the average beer, she says. Many beers also have the acidic components that help other beverages like wine and orange juice cut through the richness of fat and salt, she says.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly when it comes to pairings, craft beers have a greater flavor harmony potential, she says. “The malted barley of many craft beers pair incredibly well with grilled, roasted or smoked meats, for example.”

O’Byrne agrees. “What’s great about food and beer pairings is they’ll vary. For the longest time, there’s been this stodginess of wine and food, but the variety of beers out there really opens up your palate, and it also opens up your mind a little bit.” His menu even includes a grown-up float made with stout instead of root beer. “The chocolatey coffee notes of the stout are perfect with vanilla ice cream.”

O’Byrne opened Great Waters 18 years ago, and the brewpub has always offered a variety of on-site brewed craft beers and a pub menu with old favorites and limited-time specials made to pair with the house brews. About once a quarter, the pub also puts on a five-course tasting menu that begins with the beer — the brewer and chef work together to create the menu, selecting dishes designed to pair best with each brew.

Brewpubs aren’t the only place to find beer and food pairings these days — even fine dining eateries are offering beer lists alongside the wine lists, and upscale chefs are increasingly opting for beer pairings, the Boston Globe reported recently. And even grocery stores are getting in on the act, including Wegman’s whose website includes a primer on pairing.

For more “how to” on creating the perfect food and beer pairings, check out this tip sheet from the Brewers Association.

Are you getting adventurous with beer and food pairings? What’s your most creative discovery? Tell us about it in the comments.