Beer Class: The art of beer and food pairing

Beer Class: The art of beer and food pairing

Beer tasting is a complex skill

Beer and food pairing is becoming increasingly popular as more of us are discovering that beer is very well-suited to almost any dish that you can think of. In December 2022 Dutch craft brewery Brouwerij Bliksem in collaboration with BRACK Breda organized a pairing event with barrel-aged beers and vegan dishes, which was unique and daring for several reasons.

Beer and food pairing event at BRACK Breda

First, it is unusual to attempt to pair barrel-aged beers with food, as they can be quite intense in flavor. Pairing them with a full vegan menu is another bold move. There was actually a ‘third’ pairing involved; for each dish accompanying rock and metal music was chosen, but the beer and music pairing is a topic for another time.

Some kitchen action at beer and food pairing event at BRACK Breda

Beer tasting is harder than you think

I was excited about attending this event, not only because of the unique concept, but also for another chance to further develop my flavor skills. Though eating is something we do multiple times per day, I learned from the book Flavor by Bob Holmes that – unlike our visual and audio skills - our ability to recognize flavors is relatively poorly developed. This is not a complete surprise, as over the years I have found it quite challenging to learn how to distinguish and describe them accurately. Something that we are not taught from a young age.

Chef Erny Kley explaining beer and food pairing at BRACK Breda

An interesting insight in the book comes from leading taste and smell researcher Gary Beauchamp, who thinks taste is more important for us than smell. We all know that eating brings us much less pleasure when we lose our sense of smell, but according to Beauchamp it can be worse for people who lose their taste altogether. Some lose the will to eat or even live. How peculiar then that we are generally so inept at accurately tasting and describing flavors.

For example, it would be very basic and natural for us to call the hoppy bitterness of a New England IPA ‘fruity’. A better description would be ‘tropical fruit’,  even more refined is for example mango or passionfruit, and if you really want to get into the details you could even specify which part of the fruit or its condition (overripe, dried etc.). Professional tasters and beer judges try to be as precise as possible, but it takes a lot of practice. This beer-tailored aroma spiral by author Randy Mosher from his book Tasting Beer lends a helping hand.

Randy Mosher aroma spiral

People don’t taste in the same way

We have yet much to discover about taste and smell and Holmes’ book gives more fascinating and scientific information on what we have learned (and many things that go yet unexplained). What and how we taste depends for a large part on our inherited genes, meaning every individual will have a different combination of taste receptors and varying sensitivity to certain components, such as bitterness (of which there are different types). Similarly the other gustatory components sweet, sour, salty and umami will be more pronounced for some people than for others.

Beer time at beer and food pairing event at BRACK Breda

If people don’t taste things in the same way, then how we can define if something is acceptably bitter or too bitter? Does it make sense to measure International Bitterness Units if experiences of bitterness are different? I found that the book raised more questions than answered them! On the other hand, I do understand that when evaluating beer we need to speak the same language to be able to describe it objectively.

Even more complicated are our olfactory receptors; recent research shows that humans have the ability to detect an innumerable (over a billion) number of odors. A lot of what we ‘taste’ is registered through the nose, specifically the retronasal system through which we perceive aromas released in the mouth during eating and drinking. Aroma and taste together with sight, sound and texture create the perception of flavor. It is truly a multisensory experience.

Red WIne BA Fruited Sour Ale by Brouwerij Gebroeders Roodbaard at beer and food pairing event at BRACK Breda

A daring vegan food and beer pairing with barrel-aged beers

Since the early ‘90s it has become common to age strong beers in wooden bourbon or whisky barrels. Goose Island is often attributed as being the first to barrel age beers. Fast forward to 2023 and we are aging beer in every barrel that has held alcohol, like Rum, Sherry, Cognac, Tequila and Gin.

Wood is a natural product that is porous and expands or contracts with fluctuating temperatures and thus imparts flavors and tannins into the liquid it holds. Depending on the type of barrel, the beer can absorb flavors from the wood such as vanilla, coconut, caramel, spices, smoke, and oak tannins. Sometimes fruits are macerated in the barrel along with the beer. This process works best with stronger beers, hence barrel-aged beers tend to be higher in alcohol and have more pronounced flavors. Pairing these beers works well with intense dishes and rich food. Generally, the more common beer and food pairings involve meat and cheese, but nowadays you’ll find more restaurants offering beer pairing advice with their menus. Though admittedly before this dinner in Breda I had not yet seen a pairing with a full 5 course vegan menu!

Beer food pairing event at BRACK Breda

Beer expert Mark Dredge describes three concepts to keep in mind when pairing beer with food: Bridge – this is aimed at finding similarities between the beer and food that brings flavors together (dark chocolate with coffee); Balance – this keeps things controlled by softening bold flavors and not letting individual elements overpower (dark chocolate with chili); Boost – this may be the hardest, but it is also the most rewarding when beer and food together give a boost of flavors that are better than their individual parts (dark chocolate with sour cherry).

Kitchen at BRACK Breda

Following these concepts I think at least two pairings worked really well together. Not surprisingly the barrel-aged doppelbock by Frontaal with flavors of bourbon, chocolate, coffee and vanilla flavors interacted phenomenally with the sweetness of the vegan chocolate mousse and merengue. Hop bitterness balances sweetness, so the sweeter the dessert the better it will work with a bitter beer. That is why chocolate is so good with stout beer. Try pairing chocolate with a Black IPA, you’ll be surprised how delicious that is.

Barrel-aged Doppelbock by Dutch craft brewery Frontaal, paired with vegan chocolate mousse and merengue.

Equally successful in my opinion was the Beet Wellington matched with the barrel-aged Calvados saison. On its own the beer has quite a ‘boozy’ apple flavor with citrus and herbal bitter notes from the hops, which seemed to boost the spiciness of the dish. At the same time the earthy and umami flavors toned down the bitterness of the beer.

Beet Wellington beer food pairing at BRACK Breda

I felt the other dishes had some trouble holding up to the pronounced flavors of the beers, like the king boletes and the pea soup. Umami can handle some (roasted) bitterness, but is generally less intense in character and matches well with beers lower in intensity. Another thing to remember is that not only the main ingredients influence the pairing, but also the garnish. I removed the onion in the first course, which I thought was too tangy and paired poorly with the fruited sour ale. With vegetable bitters and ‘fresh’ salad flavors I have found that the saison beer style generally works quite well.

I’ll leave you with a very useful tip from the famous beer expert Randy Mosher, who said “When in doubt, go Belgian”. Belgian dubbels and tripels don’t have overly aggressive malt or hop flavors and can stand up to about anything.

A succesful beer and food pairing experience

Was it a success? I think so! In my view the success of a beer and food pairing is not necessarily defined by the perfect combination, but by how much you learn from it and how much fun the experience is. Tasting and pairing takes a lot of practice, especially when you deviate from the beaten path. My advice to anyone interested in combining beer and food is to keep at it and enjoy the ride!

Translation Barrel Menu below image.

Barrel menu: Food, Beer, Music pairing, BRACK Breda

Overview of the pairings:

  1. Tartar of watermelon and tomato with fried capers and vegan curry mayonnaise - Fruited sour ale Nr. 15 aged in red wine barrels with figs and blackberries (5,5)% by Gebroeders Roodbaard.
  2. Grilled king boletes with celeriac puree, pickled red onion and crispy carrot - GROM Beast of Bourbon BA RIS 2022 (13%) by Brouwerij Bliksem
  3. Pea soup with smoked shiitake and potato croquettes – Kopstoot Barrel-Aged Karbouw (5%) by Ramses Bier 
  4. Beet Wellington and mousseline with chantharelles, stewed pears and vegan gravy – Nr 38 Saison Calvados (10%) by Bronckhorster Brewing 
  5. Vegan chocolate mousse with merengue -  Goats & Barrels BA Doppelbock (9%) by Brouwerij Frontaal Doppelbock

BRACK Breda is a tasting room in collaboration with Bouwerij Bliksem and Brouwerij Ramses and offers 34 beers on tap. Adress: Speelhuislaan 173A, 4815 CD Breda (open from Thu-Sun).

Author: Tina Rogers | Picture credits: Tina Rogers

Updated: 03-06-2024