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Oct 25, 2014

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Food-friendly beer

By Marty Nachel

"A beer is a beer is a beer is a beer, until you've tasted _____." This popular little jingle for a national brand beer seemed to promise beer drinkers something special if they were to choose this particular brand. Unfortunately, the assertion that a "beer is a beer" held true even for the product being advertised.

And so it was back in the 1970's, undoubtedly the nadir for the American brewing industry. The self-destructive nature of the business and the insipid products being produced by the corporate brewhouses, whose bottom-line mentality called for quantity rather than quality, have left an unfair imprint of beer in the collective mind of the American public. Even today, as the pendulum has long since begun its reverse swing, we as a nation still maintain a simplistic view of beer as a one-dimentional, unsophisticated and readily abused drink of the working class.

More often than not, beer has been relegated to serving as little more than mouthwash for pizza, pretzels and mustard-slathered hotdogs. It is unfortunate that so noble a beverage should suffer such an undeserved fate.

The history of beer would seem to accord it some semblance of honor. It is, afterall, estimated to be over 10,000 years old. Anthropologists hypothesize that Neolithic man made the transition from the nomadic lifestyle of the hunter/gatherer to the relatively sedentary lifestyle of an agriculturist in order to cultivate the grain needed to brew beer.

This Stone Age beer, crude as it may have been, was an important source of nutrients for these early hominids. While this same grain was used for the baking of bread, it was rendered more nutritious after having undergone the malting process in which the starchy insides of the kernels were transformed into proteins and soluble sugars.

Beer has always held high ceremonial and social value throughout the millenia. In ancient Babylon and Mesopotamia there were beer gods and goddesses, dieties of high rank and honor to whom hymns were sung and offerings were made. These spiritual beings wielded power and authority over the sun, the rain and the soil - all things necessary to provide a bountiful harvest of grain.

In Middle Age Europe, where the history and tradition of beer is solidly rooted, the reverence given this beverage created other, more earthly incarnations of the gods that came before. King Gambrinus is to beer what Bacchus is to wine. The lore behind this mythical figure suggests that there may indeed have been a real Gambrinus. The rotund Belgian blueblood was of French extraction and his title was Duke Jean the First.

In the Flemish speaking regions he was known as Duke Jan Primus and over time, this has been corrupted into Gambrinus. The popular tale tells of the portly aristocrat's fondness for beer leading to seemingly endless beer drinking marathons. In one instance it is said that Gambrinus consumed 388 glasses of beer in one sitting. For this dubious distinction he has been immortalized as the King of Beer. (At the risk of sounding blasphemous, never is it stated the size of his glass or length of his sitting.)

As if paying homage to a King of Beer wasn't enough, there is also the story St. Arnoldus who, after saving the stores of beer from a brewery fire, is now honored as the Patron Saint of Beer. Another tradition that has persisted through the ages is the brewing of beer by trappist monks. This practice has provided liquid sustenance for their secular countrymen but more importantly, the sale of these prized potables has provided financial sustenance for the Abbeys that produce these truly unique beers.

Many modern day celebrations are centered on or inclusive of beer. Munich's Oktoberfest, also widely celebrated in the United States, is recognized as the world's biggest beer bash but it is actually a commemoration of the September, 1810 wedding of the Duke of Bavaria to the daughter of a wealthy Baron.

The nuptial feast was preceeded by two weeks of pageantry and bibulous entertainment provided by Munich's six breweries. Of course, today the wedding is just footnote to the Oktoberfest celebration. Another German tradition is Fasching, the beer consumer's equivalent of Mardi Gras. Ironically, while obedient Christians observe the lenten laws of fasting, they maintain a steady intake of beer - ostensibly for their health.

Regrettably, too little of beer's relevance to today's world is recognized. The first ever consumer protection law was written on behalf of the beer drinker. Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria's Reinheitsgebot (German Purity Law of 1516) set parameters by which today's German brewers still follow. The famous red triangle on the label of Bass ale is recognized as the world's first international trademark.

An alewife is now just a fish instead of the dutiful spouse who brewed the family's beer. A bridal shower, to my knowledge, never includes Bride Ale - a special brew made by the betrothed to be served to her guests. And who can appreciate that this very country was fought for and won by soldiers whose daily rations included a quart of beer? Let's not forget that George Washington, James Madison, and Samuel Adams were brewers of beer, that Benjamin Franklin and others proposed the idea of a government-operated brewery, and that Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence while quaffing his favorite ale at a Philadelphia tavern.

Beer, as simple as it seems, is rather an amazing beverage. Defined primarily by four main ingredients - grain, hops, yeast and water - the variables contributed by each allows for a wide variety of styles. Grain is the source of fermentable sugars and barley is the grain of choice due to its properties that lend well to the malting and brewing processes. Other grains such as wheat, corn, rice, oats and rye can be used to achieve various results.

The hops, arguably the most misunderstood of beer's constituents, came to the beer making process almost by accident. The consequence of heating malted grain in water is a sugary soup and the cloying sweetness of the malt sugars need to be balanced with an appropriate bitterness. Over the years, twigs, leaves, bark, berries and a host of less palatable ingredients were tried until hops were discovered in the 13th century. Not only did the hops provide the perfect balance in flavor, but a delectable aromatic quality as well.

Not until modern science interceded was it discovered that hops contribute the additional benefit of protection against microbial infection, thus leading to a longer shelf life. Yeast is a voracious one-celled organism with a renowned sweet tooth. Yeast is capable of self- reproduction and was not officially recognized as an ingredient in beer until Van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope. The hard working yeast is the catalyst of fermentation; in consuming the malt sugars, it provides in return for its meal, alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Today, genetically superior yeast strains have been engineered for a variety of beer styles. Finally, water is given very little credit for its role in brewing even though it represents 90 to 95 percent of the finished product. Thanks once again to modern technology, water's acidity and alkalinity can be altered and adjusted to suit the needs of the individual brewer with regards to the style intended.

Information key to appreciation
Anyone who has ventured into the sometimes intimidating world of wine appreciation knows that information is the key. The basic ingredients used to make beer have been covered but a simple definition of beer is still in order. Beer is a generic term used to describe any fermented beverage brewed with a cereal grain.

Falling under this heading are two sub-categories: ales and lagers. The primary difference in these styles is the yeast used to ferment the beer. Ale yeast is considered "top fermenting" and works best in warm temperatures. Lager yeast is considered "bottom fermenting" and was developed to work best in cold temperatures. Just as wines can be classified simply as "reds" or "whites", so, too, can beer. The lager category is the white equivalent- generally lighter in body and color with a narrower flavor profile, tending to appeal to a wider audience. The ale category is the red equivalent - darker, rounder, more robust and more expressive; appealing to those with an experienced palate.

All of the world's brewing styles fall into one of these two categories. Currently, there are about 25 recognizable styles and probably several others that exist only in remotest corners of the world. Without naming all of them, here is a sample of some of the more popular ales: pale ale, brown ale, bitter, porter, stout, weissbier, and barleywine. The popular lagers include Pilsner, bock, Oktoberfest, malt liquor and export. In addition, there are what can be considered hybrid styles like steam beer and cream ale, and techno-beers like dry beer and the "brew du jour"- ice beer. All of these can be divided into what I like to call Old World and New World styles. The division runs loosely along the ale/lager dividing line as the lager style was not even invented until the 1850's. All beer up until then was considered ale.

Some of the newer world styles are the result of Madison Avenue brainstorms - marketing hype and little else. Fortunately, the spectrum runs to the opposite end as well. The general rule of thumb is beer is best consumed early - the closer to the brewery the better. So who would believe there are actually vintage dated beers? These laying down beers, though few and far between, are estimated to have shelf lives of 20 years and longer. Proof that beer can have every bit as much depth and complexity as wine. All in all, after decades of cheapening beer, in both product quality and public conception, there is a legitimate return to the old world ways of brewing beer.

By the 1970's, the American brewing industry had cannibalized itself through a series of hostile mergers and take-overs. There were, at that time, only a handful of regional breweries left to serve the local markets while the large national breweries carved up the majority of the sales pie. As a smaller number of companies produced a larger volume of America's beer, it became lighter, blander and embarrassingly similar.

About the same time, imported beers began making real inroads to the domestic marketplace. Just a handful of highly visible brands led the way for others to follow. As more American beer consumers turned their attention to beer from afar, many brewers from afar were anxious to grab the attention of the American beer drinker. Before long, we were being inundated with foreign brews. In time, this became a double-edged sword; while consumers were developing an appreciation for better beer, there was an increase in low quality beer coming to our shores. Just about the time this indiscriminate influx of foreign beer began to wane, the microbrewing industry was just hitting stride.

This slightly-larger-than-cottage industry was capitalizing on a number of social and financial factors. Not only had the upscale American beer drinker acclimated his palate to new and interesting styles of beer, but this was also in the era of the disposable income. Whether cultivating an image or satisfying discriminating tastes, the young urban professional was a ready made market demographic waiting to be exploited. Though these nouveau riche are likely to move on to the next "high concept" mode of dining/entertainment, the microbrewing movement is now firmly established.

Americans are once again enjoying beer styles unheard of just a decade ago. Another of the more appealing aspects of the microbreweries and especially the brewpubs, is their regionality. All of them tend to play up on the foods and beer styles indigenous to their own cities, states and regions. Each new microbrewery that opens, in a sense, creates its own little niche market. Alert travellers can now seek out these locally handcrafted brews as they journey cross country.

The when and where of pairing
To play the beer-equivalent role of the sommelier, is to play the role of trailblazer. Beer's place in the dining experience has been inconsequential and beer/food pairings generally occur as a matter of happenstance. Where even novice wine consumers have a simple "red meat-red wine" rule to follow, no such guideline exists for beer drinkers - novice or otherwise.

My first and favorite rule is simple: "disregard all the rules." This was based on the facile ideology that taste is a subjective thing and no one can tell you what you like. This worked fine until the number of available styles grew and was then multiplied by the number of brand names, eventually making any decision a daunting experience. Using that imperfect bit of mathematical reasoning, it is conceivable that for every food there is an appropriate beer choice. It quickly became apparent that guidelines, however basic, were needed.

To fully enjoy any beer and food combination, you have to factor in time and place. Grilling chicken on the backyard barbecue on a hot August afternoon begs for something cold, light and refreshing like a wheat beer or a cream ale. At the opposite extreme, a steaming bowl of rice pudding on a frosty winter evening deserves the complement of a rich porter or stout, served at cellar temperature.

Certain well-hopped beers such as Pilsners, steam beers and India Pale Ales make excellent aperitifs while a post-prandial beer list might include a brown ale or a Kolschbier to aid in digestion. As the day is winding down, nothing can match the malty excesses of beers like barleywine, doppelbock and Imperial Russian Stout- served slightly above room temperature in a brandy snifter, of course!

That is the beauty of beer. The range of styles from light to dark, dry to sweet, mild to robust - there is an unlimited number of culinary combinations to be made. Let's take a look at some specific pairings:

Spicy Food: the average person's first inclination upon eating a bowl of five-alarm chili is to reach for something cold and wet in an effort to wash away the lingering "heat". This may work sufficiently, but if cold and wet is all that is needed, why not save money and drink water? Try instead to enjoy both the hot spiciness and the beer. Serve a medium bodied lager such as a bock beer, a Marzenbier, or a Vienna style beer. All of these are substantially malty and have a creamy mouthfeel. Rather than rinsing the mouth, these beers will coat the mouth and tongue and the sweetness will help to extinguish the flames enjoyably.

Mediterranean (Greek, Italian, Spanish): the focus is on these 3 countries whose cuisine is pretty much defined by regular use of olives, olive oil, garlic, herbs, citrus and tangy cheeses. Their pasta, seafood and rich meats are easily paired- a well balanced Munich pale lager works well with the pasta and a hoppy pale ale goes well with pork and lamb. Pilsner beer is famous for pairing with fresh fish and a traditional porter stands up well to oysters, shellfish, and salt-cured fish.

Indian: East Indian cuisine, though occasionally spicy, is prepared with subtle finesse. A complex variety of herbs and spices are used in the preparation of Indian dishes but none more obvious than curry. Light bodied premium lagers are recommended so as not to overpower the food's subleties.

Asian: Asian cuisine is fairly simple. With the exception of Korean dishes, the ubiquitous fish sauce, from the mild Vietnamese variety to the rich Cambodian version, is a common thread. Beers with mild hop bitterness and some residual sweetness like a Dortmunder/Export pair nicely with these offerings. Japanese beers are excellent for pairing with the delicate fresh (and often uncooked) fish and other delicacies from the sea that are consumed throughout that country. Tsing-tao, with its German pedigree, is undoubtedly the best for complementing Chinese food, whether Cantonese, Mandarin or Szechuan in style

French: Easily defined by pungent cheeses, fine meats and rich sauces, French haute cuisine is no place for timid beers. Biere de garde, a beer style of true French origin, is a natural with aged and herbed cheeses. The rich, earthy Belgian trappist beers will complement most red meats nicely. For rich sauces, a mildly malty but sharply refreshing Saison is just what the gourmand ordered.

Continental cuisine: The countries that comprise this category are from the "beer belt" of the north and their national cuisines don't just go well with beer, they were built around beer! Slavic, Czech and German foods have a natural affinity for beer. Strong, aged cheeses, pork, chicken, coarse breads, and the best of the wursts don't need any coaxing to find a liquid partner. The venerable altbier with cheese, a malty/hoppy Maibock with barbecued white meats, Munich dunkel (dark) with pumpernickel and rye, and a malty Oktoberfest or Marzenbier with most sausages. One additional treat for the true epicure - try a Bamberger rauchbier (smoked beer) with smoked ham or smoked sausage- pure delight!

Dessert: Beer with dessert is a combination capable of ambrosial heights. Rather than trying to match sweet with sweet, try contrasting tastes instead; sometimes this approach brings better results. A double chocolate cake would find a nice contrast in a dry Irish style stout or possibly a robust porter. A Belgian white beer, even one brewed in the U.S., would spice up any fruit-laced arrangement. Strawberry shortcake would mate well with a pale bock and a box of chocolates would dissappear quickly with an uncorked bottle of framboise (raspberry lambic beer) in the vicinity.

And then again, after a satisfying meal a pint of malty Scotch ale is a dessert unto itself!

1997 Marty Nachel

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beer for dummies
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beer across america
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