Katherine Martinelli: What have you been doing with beer and food pairings?
Jim Clarke: This is something that I’ve been working on at Megu. This year I added an artisanal beer pairing. There are some great beers out there. It tends to be places with a Belgian emphasis. When you talk about beer a lot of times hops filled in for that acidity tannin role [of wine] so a hoppy beer will pair better with something that needs that drying character as a contrast, whereas we have a lot of dishes with miso, which is sweet so we pair it with something less hoppy like an amber.
KM: What drives the pairing, the beer or the food?
JC: For me at Megu we start with the food. There have been a couple times where we’ve had a guest and they start with the beer, and actually some of it has been chef-directed; he asks: what are people drinking? I have a good relationship with the chef. I haven’t really done any formal beer dinners where I’ve started with the beers, but we don’t do a lot of events like that generally.
KM: Do you have a favorite pairing?
JC: We have a chocolate fondant cake that I’ve been serving with J.W. Lees Harvest Ale 2001. It’s a barley wine so its higher in alcohol; its like a port. The 2001 is a little fruitier, and chocolate is so difficult with so many wines. Barley wines age really well so it’s better to get an aged one; they need time to mellow so the rounder characteristics come out.
Chocolate and cheese are two places where beer is better than wine. There have been studies that cheese numbs down the flavor of wine, which doesn’t happen with beer. They don’t change each other for the worse. With a wine you get more of a change in the character of the cheese and the wine, whereas with beer I find you get more of the effect with red wine with steak where what really happens with the steak is that every bite is like the first bite, with the tannins clearing the fat away from your mouth. With beer it’s a similar effect but not as drastic; it doesn’t affect the flavor of the beer. Beer and cheese make the flavors of the other shine, without changing them.
Another great paring is oysters and dry stouts. It is delicious and it’s funny because it’s the opposite of what you do with wine. With wine you choose this super crisp high-acidy wine to match and have the same character as the brininess of the oysters. But with the beer you get something that matches the richness of the oyster itself, kind of the creaminess of the oyster flesh. You could do either a hoppy pale ale or a stout, two different ways to pair. They both bring out different things in the oysters. In fact, that was the theme of a birthday party of mine a few years ago – beer and oysters.
KM: Are beer pairings becoming more popular?
JC: It’s still less compared to wine pairings. For Restaurant Week we offered a wine pairing and a beer pairing with the meal. Probably 15% of the pairings sold were beer, maybe 15 or 20 %, but I think that’s quite good. And the response on it has been fantastic. People like the wine pairing, but the beer pairing is something new. People are like “wow, I didn’t know it made a difference.” The variety of beers is so great now. You couldn’t do beer pairings 10 years ago because you didn’t have the variety.
KM: Is there anything to avoid in beer pairings?
JC: I guess the biggest thing is there are a lot of really hoppy beers out there in craft beers and hops kind of functions the way acidity and tannins work in wine. It works as acidity. So in fatty dishes, like when you have a rich steak, you need more malt than hops. You need to balance the weight, the density, and the flavor, whereas hops work with fish.