Americans drink, on average, 10 times as much beer as wine, but until recently, few seemed aware there is as much art to matching beers with food as there is to pairing wines with food.
One person who has been spreading the gospel of how beautifully beer pairs with food is Bruce Paton, executive chef of the Cathedral Hill Hotel in San Francisco. Paton was previously executive chef at Barclays Pub in Oakland, which has approximately 30 beers on tap. One day, the bar manager announced to him, “We’re doing a beer dinner,” meaning Paton was responsible for developing the menu design. Paton coordinated four dinners that were immensely popular.
Later, after Paton was hired as a line cook at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco, he mentioned the beer dinners and was told it was a great idea for the Clift. Paton’s initial thought was, “Are you crazy?” because Barclays, a neighborhood pub, seemed like the polar opposite of the four-star Clift. But Paton ended up doing 10 sold-out dinners (as well as becoming chef) at the Clift.
Paton continued the tradition when he went to Cathedral Hill seven years ago, and eventually someone gave him the moniker “The Beer Chef.” He now organizes about eight beer dinners a year, which are held in the hotel’s banquet space.
The clientele of these beer dinners “has absolutely nothing to do with the hotel,” Paton says, although he has done some special dinners for the hotel, and a beer dinner option is listed on the banquet menu. It’s up to Paton to promote and organize each dinner. He starts by contacting a brewer, sampling and selecting its beers (only craft beers, both domestic and imported), and creating a menu. He then emails more than 500 people on his mailing list, posts the event on beer websites, including his own (www.beer-chef.com), and advertises through local pubs. Paton handles the reservations and payments. The white tablecloth dinners routinely sell out. The last dinner Paton organized had 135 people in attendance, and five brewmasters participated.
DINNER WITH THE BREWMASTER
Brewers are always invited to each dinner to talk about their brewing techniques and the flavors they’re trying to produce. Paton gives a brief presentation before each course about why he believes the beer goes well with the food he has chosen. Like wine aficionados who use unique terminology such as “tannic,” the vocabulary of beer critics includes words like “roasty,” “citric,” “flowery,” and “horse blanket.” Horse blanket, used to describe a flavor profile elicited by a type of yeast, doesn’t sound appealing, admits Paton, “but when you drink it, it’s good.”
After organizing beer dinners for 13 years, Paton notes that recently “the concept has started to take off in a big way.” He attributes this to the growing craft beer industry and the sophisticated tastes of Baby Boomers.
Paton’s longtime mission has been to elevate beer to the stature of wine, and he encourages people who would normally order wine with food to take a second look at beer. “A really, really nice beer can be had for a third of the cost of a bottle of wine, and there’s a lot more flavor going on with beer,” Paton says.
Beer, Paton believes, is eminently more approachable than wine, particularly given that the wine industry has made itself seem “mysterious and highbrow.” He also firmly believes that beer is much more versatile than wine. Some foods that are tricky to pair with wine due to its acidity have a soul mate in beer. “There is a beer to go with any kind of food,” Paton claims.
PAIRING BEER & FOOD
When Paton creates a menu, he samples the beer first and then considers what types of food it would marry well with, as opposed to working with the food first. His ability to pair beers is instinctive, honed by years of practice. “With a 20-year history as a chef,” Paton says, “I have a file of tastes in my head for foods, and I have the same thing with beer.” He highly recommends The Brewmaster’s Table by Garrett Oliver as a starting point for pairing beer and food.
“General rules for pairings,” says Paton, “are to have a contrast like a stout with oysters, because the oysters are salty and the stout has that roasty flavor that go together, or to cleanse the palate so you can enjoy another type of food. The third ‘C’ of pairings is complementing, making the food and beer taste better at the same time.”
Spicy foods like Thai go best with India pale ales. They have a lot of hops, which cleanse the palate and pair well with ingredients like cilantro and ginger—far better than the Rieslings and Gewürztraminers generally recommended for these foods, Paton believes. Darker beers like stouts can be paired with chocolate or roasted meats “because there is that same sort of caramelization going on in a steak or a prime rib.”
Regional foods tend to go well with regional beers. “If a food and a beverage come from the same area, they’re very likely to pair well,” Paton says. “Things seem to develop over time … If you drink German beer and eat German sausage, they go well together because they evolved together.”
Another general rule of thumb is that light, delicate foods get paired with light beers. While Paton admits that rules are subjective “because people’s taste buds differ,” ales can loosely be equated to red wine and lagers to white, and they can follow those wine and food pairing rules.
Paton says more restaurants like the Jack Tar Bar & Grill at Cathedral Hill are listing beer as well as wine recommendations on their menus. And more restaurants are introducing beer sommeliers.
“To educate myself on beer, I have to drink a lot of beer,” says Paton. “I know that sounds rough, but someone’s got to do it.” Much of his knowledge is also acquired through listening to brewers talk about their product and processes. Paton has been inspired by the Belgians, who have been playing with beer and food combinations for centuries. “Belgium has the broadest range of styles of any country. With more than 400 different breweries, they’re a world unto themselves when it comes to beer. They have styles no one else has.”
Paton, who has sampled thousands of brews throughout his life, is reluctant to identify a favorite but admits he is partial to India pale ale, particularly Russian River Blind Pig.
At the Craft Brewers Conference & BrewExpo America in San Diego in April, one brewer noted that 25 years ago it was impossible to get a decent beer in this country. Today, Paton says, thanks to the growth of the beer industry, it’s the best place in the world to drink beer.
Beth Rogers is a frequent contributor to HOTEL F&B.