Beer Pairing, Belgian Style, at The Publican
Amped up appreciation for beer isn't new to the food scene. Craft breweries, beer tasting menus, and even beer in cuisine have comfortably settled into the mix of restaurant menus and beverage programs right alongside cocktail pairings and molecular mixology. But a dedicated beer sommelier is still hard to find. Harder still is finding one who knows how to adapt the highly variable flavor profiles and carbonation levels of beers, ciders, and ales to a restaurant menu as intentionally bare-bones as The Publican's.
A menu boasting only essential ingredients and divided simply into fish, meat, and vegetable sections might seem unforgiving of a pairing misstep. But The Publican's beer sommelier Michael McAvena applies the restaurant's culinary philosophy—"pristine ingredients, simply prepared"—in compiling his list. So if a typical Publican dish emphasizes unadorned natural textures and solid, strong flavor profiles, they can easily be paired with beers of real character. In fact, McAvena's pairings tend to showcase a direct, colorful relationship between dish and drink, proving that these myriad malty, hoppy, and fruity beverages have as natural a place in pairing menus as classic Bordeaux or brut Champagne.
At a recent tasting, McAvena paired four dishes with four complimentary brews, with an especially strong showing from Belgium—no surprise there, since it’s among the top ten beer-consuming countries in the world, just behind the United Kingdom. Beer-making and drinking are traditions in Belgium, and McAvena’s beer pairings showcase the versatility of some of that country’s best product. Two other pairings, with beers from Chicago’s Goose Hill and Delaware’s Dogfish Head, made a strong case for the growing tradition of excellence at American craft breweries. And while not every pairing was as successful as the last, the overall endeavor was a resounding, frothy success.
1. Spicy Pork Rinds paired with Matilda, Goose Hill, Chicago, IL
Pairing pork rinds and beer might seem better suited to weekend couch-surfing, but these are no ordinary pork rinds and this is no ordinary beer. The Spicy Pork Rinds on The Publican's menu are dangerously addictive—light, cheesy, crunchy bits of dehydrated pork skin that are prepped everyday and tend to sell out, at about 60 portions a night. McAvena got the idea to pair local Chicago brewery Goose Island's Matilda beer with these upscale porky poppers after a night of smoking and spicy cheese snacks. Matilda, a classic Belgian-style pale ale, is wild, hoppy, and robust, with a characteristically fruity aroma and spicy yeast flavor that sings out when paired with the cheddar cheese, malt vinegar, and espelette on the pork rinds. And its dry, quenching finish leaves the palate clean, refreshed and, most importantly, ready to pop another pork rind.
2. Oysters and Beer paired with Foret Organic Saison, Brasserie de Blaugies, Belgium
Right in line with its no-frills philosophy, The Publican serves up these oysters on the half shell with little to no egregious fuss. Fresh and elegantly simple, the dish boasts both briny East coast Island Creek oysters and creamy, seawater-sweet West coast Kumamoto oysters. For McAvena’s pairing, oyster-friendly fixtures like Champagne or Chablis take a backseat to a classic Belgian Saison, or farmhouse-style, beer. Usually brewed in the winter and sipped in the summer, Saison beers like the Foret Organic from Brasserie de Blaugies have a tart, fruity citrus notes (and a matching lemony golden hue) that cut through the unctuous, saline explosion of a fresh oyster. But the flavors don't end at salty and sweet: the mild malty flavors of the organic, robust Saison amplify the natural rich umami of the oysters.
3. Tuna Speck with Cara Cara Vinaigrette and Orange Segments paired with Dogfish Head Chateau Jiahu
Fresh tuna replaces a boned pork leg in The Publican's version of speck. It's cured in sugar, kosher salt, mint, and cilantro before being rinsed, dusted with black pepper, and cold smoked for 45 minutes. Served with the navel orange's rosier, lower acid cousin cara cara (in a vinaigrette and segmented) the tuna has a meaty, peppery edge plays against the sweetness of the orange. McAvena pairs this already vibrant dish with Dogfish Head's Chateau Jiahu, one of a series of “ancient” brews Dogfish developed with Dr. Patrick McGovern of University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Based on the 9,000 year-old fermented contents (rice, honey, and fruit) of a clay pot found in the Jiahu province of China, Chateau Jiahu scrupulously recreates the original with malt, pre-gelatinized rice flakes, honey, chyrsanthemum, and Muscat grapes. The resulting brew is fruity, sweet, and malty, more than able to stand up to the meaty, peppery cured tuna and sweet enough to compliment the cara cara.
4. Charcuterie Plate: Pork Pie, Head Cheese, Pork Liver Terrine, House-Cured Finocchiona, Pickled Pork Tongue, and Mustards paired with Brasserie Cantillon Gueze Lambic
The Charcuterie Plate at The Publican is classic after-hours chef grub. There's nothing like the heady savor of pork liver terrine, pickled pork tongue, and house-cured, fennel-rich Finocchiona to wash down the flavors of the day. Pair it with a wild-yeast fermented Belgian lambic and the flavors on the plate and in the glass will positively sing. If, that is, you like lambic. Love it or hate it, the wild yeast fermentation that goes into brewing lambic yields variously fruity, sour, and musty flavors that gives Belgian lambic its strong character. In fact, this spontaneous fermentation process is unique to Belgium; anyone brewing outside of the country uses a "lambic blend" containing the same naturally-occurring yeasts found in the country. The common addition of raspberries, cherries, or other fruits to lambic yields a round, dry fruitiness to that both mellows the overall sourness and makes the brew a worthy match for meat. McAvena's pick, a classic gueze lambic, had enough fruit and body to support the rich, robust flavors of the rustic charcuterie plate, with just enough acid to provide bright contrast.
Beer Sommelier Michael McAvena