When it comes to pairing beer and food, Durango has a world-class expert. Sean Clark is the chief operations officer and executive chef at Peak Food & Beverage, which runs Bird’s, El Moro Spirits & Tavern and Steamworks Brewing Co. He has also cooked at the James Beard House five times, three of them for beer-pairing dinners celebrating National Beer Week.
The James Beard Foundation is like the food equivalent of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and winning one of its awards is like winning an Oscar. We suppose this makes cooking for the foundation kind of like performing at the Academy Awards. Following this logic, we’re pretty sure this makes Clark the Lady Gaga of beer pairing.
Anyway, he’s arguably as good at it as anyone on the planet. So when we wanted to know more about how to do it ourselves – match up beer and food flavors – we gave him a ring. Over a spread at Steamworks, he imparted some sage advice.
People have just started appreciating beer as something that can be paired with food over the last 20 years, and there has been a tendency for people to develop hard and fast rules saying certain foods go with certain styles of beer. This is a good starting point, Clark said.
But food and beer have too much nuance to just stick to the rules. After all, if you have five different beers of the same style, they’re each going to taste different.
To achieve a zen mastery of beer pairing, you have to understand all the ways it affects your palate. Most beer drinkers can recognize the influence of hops and malts on a beer in a few sips. But you also have to be aware of how the yeast affects the flavor. (Does your beer taste a bit like clove or banana? That was the yeast that fermented the alcohol.)
Similarly, both the alcohol content of the beer and its carbonation will change your experience. Carbonation will impart a bit more bite, and both elements will scrub any fatty, residual flavors away from your palate. In contrast, a creamy, smooth nitrogenated beer will not.
Don’t even get us started on aroma profiles.
“You have these really great aha moments when you’ve got a beer that tastes this way, and you’ve got food that tastes this way, but they make a little love child together. And everything tastes better and different together,” Clark said.
Finding out what goes well together is mostly just experimentation – trying two flavors and seeing how they feel together in your mouth. Orange juice and toothpaste? Bad. Blueberries and lemon? Good.
“When you really start getting into it and dissecting, you’re like, ‘Wow, this is amazing. This is way better than what wine can do.’ And a lot of people pooh-pooh that. Granted, I’ve had some amazing wine variants, but beer in its nature is just so vast,” he said.
To demonstrate how a beer can completely change the flavor of food, Clark had us try five Steamworks beers against three of the brewpub’s dishes.
The Big Surf Tuna Bowl – sesame-crusted tuna, grains, arugula, mango, edamame and citrus habanero dressing – was surprisingly not great with a Lizard Head Red ale. It transformed the taste of the beer into an almost coffee flavor, something you’re not expecting with fish. But experimentation taught us that it might be great with a citrusy hazy IPA.
Speaking of pale ales, the Third Eye P.A. paired well with carrot cake, creating an almost pineapple flavor on the tongue. We wouldn’t necessarily have expected this just based on the spiciness of the beer’s hops. But it works.
The greatest revelation, though, was how well the Bangers N’ Curds (blue cheese sausage and buffalo-dusted, breaded Wisconsin cheese curds) and Backside Stout go together. It was eye-opening, especially because it’s not something you’ll necessarily find in a guide to beer pairing. But if you’ve tasted enough things to know that intense blue cheese sausages won’t be overpowered by the stout’s flavor, and the smooth beer won’t wipe away the spicy cheesiness of it all, it just seems natural.
If there was one takeaway from our conversation with Clark, it’s that we really ought to experiment with our foods and beers a bit more. A random lager is fine with whatever, but when you discover those ideal flavor combinations, they’re mind-blowing.