It should come as no surprise that beer, more specifically craft beer, has snuck up on wine as a viable option for food pairings. When visiting a restaurant, though, you may not have access to a sommelier or expert on pairings. I understand that it can be overwhelming to figure out which beer goes with what food, but I am here to offer some help.
Rule number one: drink what you like. These are merely suggestions. If you like a particular beer with a dish, then drink it. If you like imperial stouts with every meal, by all means, continue to drink imperial stouts. Personal taste is most important – no matter how fucked up it might be.
Before delving any further into pairing, there’s a few general facts about beer that may be useful. Fact one: carbonation is like scrubbing bubbles for the tongue. Each sip of beer following a bite of food cleans the tongue, removing fat and readying the palate for the next bite. Thus, beer is the perfect partner for fatty dishes. Oh, who am I kidding? Beer is perfect with almost anything, which incidentally leads me to fact two: beer is awesome.
All beer can be placed into one of two categories: lagers and ales. Lager yeast ferments at a cooler temperature than ale yeast. Yeast is responsible for fruity and/or spicy flavors. Lagers, then, are less fruity and more grain- and hops-focused. It might be said that lagers taste cleaner than ales.
With close to thirty styles, there is an incredibly broad range of flavors with which beer will pair. Going from light to dark, a kolsch like Atwater Brewing’s D-Light pairs with chicken and fish while a darker beer like Founders Breakfast Stout would work with barbecued beef or a spicy molé. As I mentioned before, these are not hard and fast rules. My motto is drink whatever the hell you want – just drink local.
Since I’ve been speaking mostly in generalities, I’ll shift focus to specifics. Let’s look at dishes currently available at local restaurants and suggest beers that pair optimally.
Gemmayze Lebanese Kitchen and Lounge is Royal Oak’s newest Middle Eastern restaurant. Taking its name from Beirut’s artistic bohemian district, Gemmayze serves incredibly fresh food in a swanky, fun atomsphere.
My experience with Middle Eastern restaurants and beer has been disappointing at best. Most restaurants stock few, if any, beers. Almaza, Lebanon’s #1 beer, is passable, but there are much better beers, especially in Michigan. Gemmayze’s management realized this and decided to keep a couple of Michigan beers on tap.
I have a very specific litmus test for Middle Eastern restaurants: the kibbeh nayyeh exam. Kibbeh nayyeh is ground lamb with bulghur wheat and spices served raw. Proper kibbeh is not easy to prepare, but Gemmayze knocks it out of the park. To make things better, Michigan Brewing Company’s High Seas IPA is on draught.
Kibbeh is a rich and savory dish: lots of umami meatiness with glorious hints of onion and pepper throughout. Given kibbeh’s rich complexity, the bracingly bitter High Seas IPA is a formidable match. MBC’s IPA has dominant notes of pine and citrus. Pine complements the spices in the kibbeh while the citrus and carbonation work together to cut the overall richness.
Let’s move from raw to deep-fried, from meat to seafood, and from Royal Oak to Shelby Township. Glancing at the Metropolitan Cafe menu is like taking a culinary trip around the world. French, Asian, Mexican and Middle Eastern – and that’s just the appetizers!
Deep-fried calamari is not the sexiest dish on the planet. However, szechuan calamari is not your everyday baby squid. Simultaneously sweet, spicy and salty with near-perfect texture, you’ll forget about all of the rubbery, mediocre stuff most places serve. For such a complex dish, you’d think a complex beer is necessary. On the contrary, New Holland’s Full Circle Kolsch is crisp enough to stand up to the bold flavors of the calamari. Vibrantly carbonated and light, Full Circle is a refreshing complement to deep-fried seafood.
Since beer can be paired with nearly anything, it makes sense that even high-end restaurants are beginning to pay more attention to their beer programs. More importantly, some of their menus are even geared toward the beer drinker. Rugby Grille, for example, has begun serving a Georges Bay scallop dish that also has clams, brussels sprouts, and chorizo and potato croquettes on the plate.
Forget about the seafood – these croquettes are life-altering! Housemade chorizo and mashed potatoes are breaded and deep-fried. This loveliness is an experience to behold. Each bite of smoky, creamy goodness is just screaming for a sip of a smoky porter or Irish stout. In absence of a porter, try a crisp pilsner to cut the richness of the croquettes and accentuate the sweetness of the scallops.
Don’t forget about dessert, either.
Inside of The Henry hotel in Dearborn, Tria: Inspired American Cuisine is focused on serving fresh food with a local focus. Their beer list is Michigan-centric as well.
Jump straight to dessert and order the Triple Chocolate Cake. Stouts with their chocolatey and roasty flavor profile are especially well suited for desserts. Tria’s dense, bittersweet chocolate cake might be a bit much for one person, especially if a pint of New Holland’s The Poet or Atwater’s Cherry Stout is added. However, this shouldn’t stop you! Tria’s menu is made for sharing and there’s no shame in splitting a pint either, especially a pint as rich as the aforementioned stouts.
We’ve just scratched the surface of the exciting world of beer and food pairings. Next time you visit your favorite restaurant, ask for the beer list and go to town. Just remember: drink what you like, but try to drink local. All of the rest will fall into place.
Originally published in Real Detroit Weekly