Rising Star Beer Sommelier Michael McAvena of The Publican – Chicago, IL
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Beer Tips for the Sommelier
1. Keep it Clean. A great beer starts with a clean glass, meaning no debris or soap residue. An unclean glass will affect head retention and the clarity of the beer, and can also negatively affect the taste.
2. Choosing glassware. If you’re just enjoying a beer and not involved in a formal tasting, logoed glassware is preferable, since it is designed by the brewer to showcase the beer. But for more formal settings, stemmed glassware is best. Obviously, you want your beer to be at its best if it is to play well with others, that is, pair well with food.
3. Some Like it Cool. There are, of course, preferable serving temperatures for each style of beer. The warmer the beer, the more forthcoming its true bouquet of flavors and aromas. But remember that beer warms as it sits. I'd much rather be served a cold barley wine than a warm Kolsch.
4. Match intensity. A simple way to start thinking about food and beer pairing is to match intensity. Don't let the beer or the food outweigh the other. A Russian Imperial stout might not be the choice for a delicate dish like Raw Yellowtail with Salsa Verde and Kumquats.
5. Think in terms of comparative and contrastive pairings. Think about the two primary types of pairings: comparative and contrastive. A comparative pairing is presented when using similar flavor elements both in a dish and in a beer, for instance, the use of a roasty stout to echo the similar flavors in grilled meat. A contrastive pairing sets two flavor elements against each other to find balance between them, for instance, the use of malty sweet Hefe-Weiss with slightly spicy Vietnamese or Thai cuisine.
6) Step beyond the basics. My favorite pairings are those that combine both comparative and contrastive techniques. I love using a sweet and sour Flemish red ale with a well-rounded charcuterie plate. The acetic acid and carbonation in the beer cuts through any fat and matches the acid in pickles. The fruity balsamic, cherry-like character in the beer finds resonance with any fruit used in a terrine, garnish or mustard. The sweet-sour components of the beer can act like a Sauternes in a classic pairing with foie gras.
7) Find harmonious flavor combinations. Probably the biggest mistake is to pair bitterness with heat, for instance, the belief that an IPA goes with anything. While matching similar flavors and aromas in beer and food is not excessively difficult, finding opposing elements that are harmonious can be. Flavor elements that contrast positively are malty sweetness and spicy heat, bitterness or sweetness and salt, acid or carbonation and fat.
8) Watch the hops. One should be wary of overtly bitter or extremely hoppy beer with food. Hops are not your enemy, but the bitterness that they produce in beer can be. Bitterness is at odds with spicy and oily heat; the one makes the other more intense. Malty sweetness, for instance, will soothe or mediate spice and heat. Bitterness with carbonation also has a tendency to bring flavors out in dishes that you might not want to showcase, for instance, with liver, heart, or other offal. The iodine character that can be present in those proteins is only accentuated by a dry bitter beer. Often, the best way to pair these dishes is with something a little sweet and maybe acidic. Although bitterness can be detrimental to some good pairings, just the right amount can be central to the success of others. For example, briny salty oysters and a good slightly bitter Saison can be a match made in heaven.
9) Belian Brews—What’s Not to Love? For the most part, Belgian style ale is a safe bet for easy and successful food pairing. The range of flavors is by far the most gastronome-friendly. There are many elements that make Belgian style beer so successful when paired with food—their medium-to-low bitterness, their large range of malt flavor, their successful ability to utilize acid, and their focus on complex yeast-derived flavors and aromas, like fruity, spicy, earthy, and funky.
10) Draft Picks. Let’s not forget some of the other food-friendly styles of the world: German Weiss beers, both pale and dark, strong and light, are excellent for the table. French beire de garde, with its elegant malty character, also pairs well. If nothing else comes to mind, a pilsner or a helles lager can be used just to restart the palate. Luckily, at this point in time, American brewers are producing all of these styles and more, with their own unique twist. In the end though, no matter how good a pairing sounds, you'll never be sure until you taste.