Not A Fan Of Beer? These Pairings May Win You Over

A sampling of beers, ranging in color from golden to dark brown

hide captionWhen pairing food with beer, says beer expert Greg Engert, always pair like intensity with like intensity. For instance, roasted foods pair well with dark golden to light amber beers. Amber to light brown brews exuding caramelized notes are perfect with foods that are fried, sauteed or braised.

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Until a week ago, I had only two experiences with beer. One: As a teen, I rinsed my hair with my dad's Heineken. Two: This summer, at a food festival in Washington, D.C., it was blistering hot and the only cold drink was beer. A chef friend persuaded me to have some mixed with lemon soda. He called it "shandy," and I felt as though the lemon soda was being punished.

I admit to not liking the smell of beer, and I had never tried it before then. I have, however, had my share of questions like, "You are from India and you have never had a Kingfisher?" and the follow-up, "Then what did you drink in college?" Rum and Coke, OK?

As I stared at yet another invitation to Oktoberfest this year, instead of ignoring the invite, I decided to learn something about beer before I went. I also wanted to know how to pair beer and food.

My guide was Greg Engert, beer director for the D.C.-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Engert was pursuing a degree in English literature at Georgetown University when his passion for beer won out and he instead started teaching people how to drink. This year Food & Wine named him one of its "Sommeliers of the Year," its first time ever for a beer professional. Who better to help me understand what I had been missing and find out, once and for all, if I would like to drink beer?

Beers From The Tasting

These beers were presented (in order) as "transitional" — aka beers for those who love wine — by Greg Engert, beer director for the D.C.-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group, during a tasting at ChurchKey in Washington. The tasting notes are Engert's.

  • Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen — Privatbrauerei Franz Inselkammer: (Bavaria, Germany) A traditional interpretation from a classic German producer. While bright and effervescent on the palate, this beer has wonderful toasted bread maltiness, a hint of baking spice and some herbal hop dryness in the finish.
  • Isaac — Birrificio Le Baladin: (Piedmont, Italy) An Italian craft brewery's take on the Belgian witbier. Cloudy, with some grainy wheat sweetness and tingly carbonation. Orange peel and coriander make appearances, contributing to a subtly complex aroma of citrus, flowers, spice and a touch of earth.
  • Aventinus — Weissbierbrauerei Schneider: (Bavaria, Germany) Among the best food beers in the world, Aventinus — though dark and strong — maintains the illuminating freshness seen in milder Bavarian wheat ales. But the aromatics are tuned up, offering banana, plum and raisin combined with clove and cinnamon spice, all sitting upon a bed of caramel-covered nutty malt.

I arrived with friends at ChurchKey, on 14th Street in D.C., where Engert serves more than 500 beers (without a Bud Light or Coors in sight), ready to learn. He was waiting with beers and with foods that paired well with them. After a warm welcome, he animatedly explained the history of beer and the methods used in creating beer. Essentially, it involves cooking grains, then fermenting them with sugar. He looked and sounded like a college professor as he explained that the way the grains are handled, the way they're cooked, will help define the taste of the beer.

"Grains that are lightly kilned will have a toasty flavor and dark golden to light amber hue. Those stewed and kilned at higher heat will taste of caramel and result in amber to light brown brew. Grains heated at even higher temperatures will be brown to black and showcase roasted flavors," he explains. Then hops are added as a bittering agent to counteract all the sugar and other seasonings.

When pairing food with beer, he said, always pair like intensity with like intensity. For instance, a char-grilled dish will go well with a beer whose grain has been cooked in the same way.

Proteins and produce that are boiled pair nicely with very light beers, straw to golden in color. When proteins and produce are grilled, they go well with the darkest brews.

About The Author

An engineer turned food writer, Monica Bhide writes about food and its effect on our lives. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, Food & Wine, Prevention, Cooking Light, Health and Self. Her latest book is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster). Read more at her blog, A Life Of Spice.

Roasted foods pair well with beers having dark golden to light amber hues. Amber to light brown brews exuding caramelized notes are perfect with foods that are fried, sauteed or braised.

OK, I was with him so far.

"Here is the first beer you are going to taste," he said, giving me a beautiful glass filled with an amber-hued, crystal clear beverage. It looked like beer I have seen friends drinking, but had an aroma that was so different — and it wasn't ice cold. "Most common beers are sold ice cold just to satisfy the urge to drink something cold," he said. Most are kept at 37 degrees, he says, so they have no aroma but they do have plenty of carbonation. This beer is all about the tempting aromas and sweetness, and is kept at 42 degrees. "I call these my 'transitional beers' — beers for those who love wine and so will appreciate the complexities in the aromas and taste," he said. "Also, women taste bitterness more than men, and this is a sweeter beer."

My friends around the table agreed. "I never think of what Bud tastes like," said one. "I just think, 'I want a cold beer.' " I took a sip. I had nothing with which to compare the taste, but this was crisp, clean, like a chilly fall morning. This was beer? Really? I could get used to this.

"That was clear since it's made with barley. The next one is a bit cloudy because it uses wheat," Engert said, handing me another that smelled rather sweet and was darker in color. My education continued as he explained that because of low alcohol content and high carbonation, beers pair well with spicy foods. And then came the biggest surprise. He had me taste an Italian beer prepared in the Belgian tradition of adding spices, with flavors of coriander and orange peel. It was fruity, sweet, spicy. Wheat never tasted so good.

Even in my beer trance, I thought to ask why beer is especially popular now. "We are going toward simpler cooking in most kitchens, and beer is very easy to match with simple foods. So, for instance, if you are eating a salad, you can match a light, crisp beer with it. If you are cooking lamb or scallops, you can match a nice fruit beer with more deep caramel tastes," Engert said. Because beer is a "cooked" beverage, you learn a little bit about how your beer was made, how the grain was cooked, and match that to how your food is cooked. "You can do this with beer, but not with wine, since grapes are not cooked to make wine," he said. He also pointed out that beer is cheaper, more accessible and less intimidating.

My last taste for the day was a beer that had been prepared with apricot wine. It was simply divine. Clearly, I have wasted a lot of years since I turned legal drinking age.

Shaved Fennel, Apple And Arugula Salad

This salad goes especially well with the Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen beer. Try to find violet mustard — it adds a lovely color and texture contrast. Many online sources carry violet mustard, which is made with grapes. The recipe is adapted from one by Kyle Bailey, chef at Birch & Barley restaurant in Washington, D.C. Leftover vinaigrette may be refrigerated for several days in a jar with a tight-fitting lid.

Shaved Fennel, Apple And Arugula Salad
Monica Bhide for NPR

Makes 4 servings

For The Lemon Vinaigrette

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon honey

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

For The Salad

1/4 cup blanched almonds, preferably Marcona

1 medium bulb fennel, trimmed

Salt

Ground white pepper

1 Granny Smith apple

5 ounces baby arugula, rinsed and spun dry

4 teaspoons violet mustard (optional)

Put all of the vinaigrette ingredients in a blender or a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Blend or shake well to combine. Recombine before each use.

Toast the almonds in a small dry saute pan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned and fragrant. Cool on a plate.

Quarter the fennel bulb and cut out the solid core. Using a very sharp knife or a mandoline, cut the fennel into very thin slices, about 1/16 inch. Put in a bowl. Drizzle lightly with vinaigrette, season with salt and white pepper, and toss to coat.

Quarter, core and slice the apple slightly thicker. Put in another bowl, drizzle lightly with vinaigrette, and toss very gently to coat.

Put the arugula in a large bowl. Drizzle lightly with vinaigrette, season with salt and white pepper, and toss well.

Divide the arugula among four salad plates. Top with a layer of apple, then a layer of fennel tangles. If using, shape 1 teaspoon of violet mustard into a quenelle and place on the plate. Scatter almonds around and serve immediately.

Scallops With Fregola And Corn

Fregola is a pasta from Sardinia, available in Italian gourmet stores. If you can’t find it, substitute Israeli couscous. Try Isaac — Birrificio Le Baladin beer with this recipe, also adapted from one by Kyler Bailey, chef at Birch & Barley restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Scallops With Fregola And Corn
Monica Bhide for NPR

Makes 4 appetizer servings

12 sea scallops

2 large ears of fresh yellow corn, husks and silk removed, divided

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns

Kosher salt

1 cup fregola

Extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

High-heat cooking oil spray

Cooked green/yellow beans

If the tough muscle tab is still attached to the scallops, remove and discard it. Rinse the scallops with cold water. Place them in a single layer on several thicknesses of paper towels and cover with more towels.

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Cut or break one ear of corn in half and add to the water with the thyme, peppercorns and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Simmer for 10 minutes. Drain the corn and let it cool until you can handle it. Cut off and reserve the kernels.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the fregola and boil for about 5 minutes or until tender. Drain well and mix with a little olive oil to keep it from sticking together.

Place the remaining ear of corn over a bowl, and cut through the corn kernels about halfway to the cob. Add the corn to a medium nonstick saute pan with 1 teaspoon olive oil. Scrape the cob with the back of a knife blade to get the natural liquid cornstarch and add to the corn. Cook over medium heat about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the corn turns bright yellow and becomes thicker. While the corn is still hot, press through a fine-mesh strainer or a food mill using the finest screen. Alternately use a mini-food processor. Keep the puree warm.

Combine the reserved corn kernels and fregola in a nonstick saute pan. Add about 1 tablespoon of the corn puree and season lightly with salt and pepper. Heat gently over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Season the scallops with salt and pepper. Heat a saute pan large enough to hold the scallops in one layer over high heat until very hot. Spray very lightly with oil. Place the scallops flat in the pan. Let them cook undisturbed about 1 1/2 minutes, until seared and caramelized on the bottom. Working quickly, turn them with a spatula and cook for another 1 1/2 minutes.

While the scallops are searing, make a pool of corn puree on each of four plates. Mound the fregola mixture in the center.

Place 3 scallops around each mound of fregola, garnish with beans, and serve immediately.

Cheesecake In A Peanut Butter Cookie Crust

This recipe is courtesy of Tiffany MacIsaac, pastry chef at Birch & Barley in Washington, D.C., who recommends Aventinus — Weissbierbrauerei Schneider as the beer of choice to accompany this cheesecake. If you can’t find creme fraiche, just use sour cream. Also, more of the peanut butter cookie will be made than needed for the crust. Either nibble on the extra cookie while waiting for the cheesecake to cool, or crumble on top of the cheesecake for garnish.

Cheesecake In A Peanut Butter Cookie Crust
Monica Bhide for NPR

Makes 8 to 12 servings

For The Peanut Butter Cookie Crust

1/4 pound (1 stick) plus about 3 tablespoons softened unsalted butter, divided

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1 large egg

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup smooth peanut butter

Cooking oil spray

For The Cheesecake Filling

3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened

3/4 cup granulated sugar

Pinch kosher salt

3 large eggs

2 large egg yolks

Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 tablespoons creme fraiche

For The Garnish

1 cup port (optional)

Champagne grapes

Salted roasted peanuts

To make the cookie for the crust, preheat the oven to 325 degree.

Cream the stick of butter and the sugars on medium speed in an electric mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment if you have it, until fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla extract. In a separate bowl, stir together the baking soda, flour and salt, add to the butter mixture and mix to combine. Stir in the peanut butter.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. The dough will be very sticky. Wet a spatula with water and spread the dough out on the parchment-covered cookie sheet to an even thickness of 1/3-inch. Bake 25 to 35 minutes, until golden brown.

Remove from the oven but leave the oven on. Using a fork, scrape the warm cookie dough back and forth to crumble it. (Only half of the cookie needs to be crumbled for the recipe. Eat the remainder or use it to garnish the plate and the dish before serving the cake.) Cool cookie crumbles to room temperature.

While the cookie crumble is cooling, combine the cream cheese, sugar and salt on low speed in an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, vanilla seeds and extract. Add slowly to the cream cheese mixture, scraping down the bowl as needed. Stir in the creme fraiche.

Wrap an 8-inch springform pan with a double layer of aluminum foil. Lightly spray the bottom and sides with oil. Bring a kettle of water to a boil.

Use your fingers to crumble any large pieces remaining of the peanut butter cookie crumble. Combine 2 cups crumbles with the remaining 3 tablespoons butter. It should hold together when pressed; if not, mix in a little more butter. Press evenly onto the bottom of the springform pan.

Pour the cheesecake filling over the crust.

Put a larger pan on the oven shelf and place the springform pan in it. Pour boiling water halfway up the sides of the springform pan. Cover the larger pan with foil. Bake for 45 minutes.

Remove the foil and turn off the oven. Leave the cake for 10 to 15 minutes more, or until set (which is when the entire cheesecake jiggles when gently shaken).

Chill the cheesecake for at least 2 hours before slicing.

If you want to garnish it with sauce, gently simmer the port until it is reduced to 1/4 cup. Chill.

Drizzle dessert plates with the reduced port, if using, and garnish cake slices with grapes and peanuts. Sprinkle remaining peanut butter cookie crumble on top of cheesecake.

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