By Lee ReiherzerZachary Clark and Ian Wenger are professional chefs who bring a unique set of qualifications to the art of pairing beer with food. Based out of Dublin’s Irish Pub in Oshkosh, these young men make their living preparing food, but their avocation is making beer.
“The funny thing is, the first beer pairing we did, that’s right when we made our first couple batches of beer,” Clark said. “That was just the start of us getting into homebrewing.”
Their brewing experiences have informed their approach to pairing beer with food.
“When you know what goes into making a beer and can identify the ingredients and where the flavors are coming from, it gives you a really good base to start from,” Clark said. “If you have that, then you can take it outside the box and come up with something new that actually makes sense and works.”
Wenger breaks down their approach.
“We’ll sit with a beer and try to deconstruct it as we drink it,” Wenger said. “We’ll identify its basic parts and pick out the different flavors it has. Let’s say you’re drinking a stout. It might have coffee notes or roasty notes. Maybe it’ll have chocolate or vanilla flavors or maybe even bourbon. If you can do that with your beer, then you can begin piecing together the foods that will go well with it. We try to construct it from the bottom up.”
Next they bring in the food.
“We’ll start thinking about some of the flavors we have here in the kitchen to help us establish a starting point,” Clark said. “For example, if we’re tasting a red ale, we might dip into some barbecue sauce as we drink the beer. Then we might eat some meat with it or try a cheese. We’re trying to figure out flavors that will blend together so that in the end when somebody gets that plate and they take a bite and drink that beer, it all comes together.”
The effect can be remarkable. The goal is to coax a set of flavors from the beer and food that neither would present as intensely in the absence of the other. That’s the art. When it’s working at a high level, the result is delicious.
“A lot of it is just flow,” Wenger said. “You’re trying to discover flavors that will perfectly flow together.”
The interaction is complex, but it’s something anyone can create if they’re willing to tap into their own experiences with food and beer. Wenger, for example, talks about how he went about pairing a dish with Two Women Lager from New Glarus Brewing for a recent Dublin’s beer dinner.
“When we started tasting that beer, it reminded me of sitting down at the cabin and eating cheese and crackers and sausage,” he said. “It reminded me of being in the country and the hearty kinds of food or down-home cooking that goes with that.”
The memory resulted in pairing the beer with a barbecued pulled-pork baguette accented with a blend of cheddar cheeses.
Most pairings rely on one of two simple principles. The beer and food will act to either compliment or contrast one another. For Clark and Wenger, it depends upon the beer. “We go both ways with it,” Clark says. “We’ll sip on the beers and think about whether we want to complement or contrast its flavors. For a darker heavier beer, you might want to think abut foods that have heavier flavors. Higher alcohol beers are also good with foods that have strong flavors . . . [but] you don’t want to hammer the palate.”
Wenger adds that it really all comes down to personal preference.
“Trust your own palate,” he advised. “And try to educate yourself on the beer. Be open to new beers and new ingredients. Everything has its match, and everybody’s palate is different. Ultimately you have to decide what is good and what is not. Right now, my favorite thing is pairing with sour beers. It’s so much fun. The depth of flavor is so great. There’s so much there to work with. Really, half the fun for us is just trying new stuff.”
Creating that unique experience is something Clark and Wenger continually strive for when planning their pairings.
“Almost every brewing company has an online list of pairing ideas for their beers, and those can be helpful, but we like to do something completely different from what they suggest,” Clark said. “We don’t want to end up having the same beer tasting that somebody else has already had because they’ve used the brewery’s recommendations. We always try to give people a new experience. The best suggestion I can give is that you sit down with the beer and some ingredients you like to cook with and try a little bit of each and see how it goes. The best thing is experience. Just start doing it!”
Lee Reiherzer drinks, brews and researches beer in Oshkosh. Visit his blog, Oshkosh Beer, at OshkoshBeer.Blogspot.com.