Pairing Beer and Food-Alchemy Market and Cafe
History of Beer in the US
The Wide World of Beer is just starting to open up to Americans, just as the diversity of wine has opened up over the past 30-40 years. Why are we just starting to appreciate the many nuances that the Basic Four ingredients of beer (water, barley/wheat, hops, and yeast) can produce when the English, French, Belgians, and Germans have enjoyed a wide range of malt beverages for hundreds of years? A large measure of blame can be placed upon Prohibition and World War Two. America in the Nineteenth Century was a great place for beer. Our mulitcultural heritage fostered a wide range of brewing practices and styles. German and East European immigrants brought Pilsners, Bocks, and Wheat Beer while the English brought their heritage of Stout, Pale Ale, Porter, India Pale Ale, and Bitter. Prohibition put many breweries out of business and forced the consolidation of others, resulting in the Mega-Breweries that we know today. With many men away at war during World War Two, these large brewing companies sought to appeal to the supposed insipid taste of women for beer, and many of the more interesting styles gave way to the mass market watery lager that we think of today as “Beer”.
Post World War 2
Fortunately, the Microbrewery Revolution in the United States has blossomed. Pioneers in the movement were Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco and Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada of Chico, California. The nineties saw a huge number of new microbreweries, as well as a huge number of failures. However, the best survived, and the United States has become the most innovative and exciting place to be for beer, corroborated by the late First Man of Beer, Michael Jackson. Sure, our brewing traditions don’t stretch back through generations to the smoky dawn of agriculture, but what we lack in tradition, we make up for in innovation. Nowhere else can you find high-quality examples of many different styles of beer under one roof, as in the numerous innovative small breweries around the country.
Wide Range of Styles
When I hear people say “I don’t like beer”, a chill runs down my spine. Saying this is akin to saying “I don’t like food.” How can someone not find some malt beverage that he/she likes? The Beer Judge Certification Program lists almost 100 distinct styles of beer, cider, and mead. The wide range of flavors, colors, strengths, and acidity found in beer far surpasses that of wine. The Beer Flavor Wheel lists such unusual (and sometimes disgusting-sounding) descriptors as “butterscotch”, “leathery”, “musty”, “salty”, “creamy”, “lacquerlike”, “fresh-cut grass”, “licorice”, “smoky”, “cheesy”, and even “catty”. Surprisingly, these flavors all work well in the correct beer style.
Beers range from the light-bodied, sour Berliner Weisse wheat beer of Northern Germany to the dark, sweet-and-sour wineyness of Flanders Red Ale to the ink-black creamy roastiness of an English Milk Stout to the mouth-puckering hoppy bitterness of a West Coast Imperial India Pale Ale. Truly, there is a beer for every occasion and every food pairing. Some foods that are traditionally hard to match with wine pair perfectly with beer. Beer and cheese is an ancient pairing, and many abbey breweries make cheese as well as beer. Salads, asparagus, and artichokes find good matches in beer. Desserts find their foil in the fruity, toffee, roasty, and sweet flavors of many beers.
Beer at Alchemy
At Alchemy, my restaurant in Murphys, I am occasionally tickled when a customer asks me to recommend a beer to pair with his meal. It is a pleasure to talk with adventurous diners, and I am asked to pair food and beer more and more. I find no problem choosing one or a few from our collection, and the customer is inevitably pleased and surprised with my choice. Served in the right glass at the right temperature, and paired correctly with food, world-class beer can be just as enjoyable as world-class wine at a fraction of the cost. How much would you expect to pay for a top Champagne or Bordeaux wine? $100, $500, or more? Well, a 750 ml. bottle of some of the finest beers, often aged for years in oak, flavored with whole fruit, or employing difficult production methods such as blending, bottle conditioning, and the use of wild yeasts, may top out at $8-30. I once purchased a 25-year old bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale (a very strong and complex Barleywine from England) for $22 on eBay.