Years ago, Natty Light was advertised as the beer “with the taste for food.” One of the campaign’s television commercials featured a humanized beer bottle leaning over a plate of pasta and slurping up a spaghetti noodle.
Beer commercials, and beer pairings, have certainly evolved since then. Beer dinners are becoming more and more ubiquitous in the city, and with good reason: Cocktail pairings can be tough with all those strong flavors, and wine dinners can be long and very fancy, which isn’t always quite the thing. The beer dinner is the Goldilocks middle-of-the-beverage dinner genre: Approachable, but with plenty of interesting flavors, and more than often, just right.
The Lowcountry is in the middle of a craft beer explosion. The hard lobbying from
Pop the Cap SC (now the S.C. Brewers Association) to change laws, coupled with the growth of Charleston and its culinary scene, have helped fuel the creation of more than 10 breweries, with more in the works.
And fall marks the start of craft beer’s high season, the time when beers with a little more body and bite make sense. Perhaps an appropriate way to celebrate the arrival of the season is throwing a beer bash of your own.
The idea of pairing can be intimidating. Many menus feature suggested beers or wines below a dish, and there definitely seems a “right” and a “wrong” way to pair food with alcohol. But when it comes to beer, Brandon Plyler, certified cicerone and manager of the downtown Charleston Beer Exchange, would prefer that people used phrases like “better” or “not as successful.”
“Food and beer is a wide-open universe,” says Plyler. “There are many ways to put together pairings.”
But where to begin? You should definitely start with the beer, says Bob Cook, chef de cuisine of Cypress and Artisan Meat Share and beer dinner enthusiast.
“Pairing always starts with the least manipulable element, and that is the beer,” he explains. “You can add stuff to dishes, but the beer is a done deal.”
Cook, who stresses that he is “in no way a beer nerd, just a beer fan,” explains that when he is asked to create pairings, he always starts by drinking the beer. “Taste the beers first, and see what flavors you can pick out. Do this with friends, and then talk about what you are tasting. Let the beers warm up a bit and taste them again to see how the flavor develops. Really think about what you’re tasting and see if it brings to mind any familiar flavors.”
Tasting, and talking about what you are tasting, is a personal palate-expanding experiment, and the more you focus, the more flavors you’ll be able to detect.
“Herbs and spices aren’t usually added to wine, but you’ll often taste beer where coriander, sage or citrus peel has been added. Even hops is an herb, and so all those are great elements to pair,” Plyler says.
And then there’s the sweet, the sour and the bitter — big elements that play well with food.
Once you’ve identified the beer’s flavor, it’s time to consider food.
“It’s so easy for a beer ‘dinner’ to not be a dinner,” Cook says. “You can have a brunch, a picnic, all appetizers, whatever.”
Therefore, consider what’s in season and what you like to cook and your friends like to eat. Make a list of the flavors you tasted in the beer, and then make a list of foods that come to mind that have those flavors. And when in doubt, always include a salad with bitter greens (you’ll score trend points, too.)
Cook explains: “Bitter always goes better with beer. Greens such as kale and arugula are a great vehicle for other flavors, and they pair well. But always keep in mind with a salad, or with the whole meal in general, build it simply. You don’t need to try to pair with all the flavors you taste, just maybe one or two. Then the pairings can develop naturally.”
One thing that is important to get a bit technical about is the ABV percentage, or alcohol by volume number. Since those aforementioned laws have relaxed in South Carolina, local beer can have a very wide range of alcohol volume, although most fall within the spectrum from 4 percent to 10 percent. Alcohol content can impact taste buds and some of the higher ABV beers can taste “strong,” but not always.
“The order of progression is important,” Plyler stresses. “But it’s about intensity, not purely about alcohol strength, although many beers that have a lot of impact do have higher ABVs. So, an IPA could work with a dish. However, if it’s a dish that has intense flavor, perhaps a double IPA would work better. Striking that balance between the intensity or volume of the two is important.”
Dishes with intense flavor can be spicy, or have lots of blue cheese, or be smoked. Remember, there are no bad beer pairing choices, just better choices, so experiment and see what appeals to you and your guests.
The main tenet, he says, is that “the heart and soul of any pairing, beer included, is balance.” And that includes enough food to counteract bellies full of beer and safe transportation home.
Beer: 32/50 Kolsch, Kolsch Ale, Coast Brewing, 4.8% ABV
This is a light, approachable beer that is great to get the party started. Although not intimidating in the least, it still has plenty of delicate flavor, including a slight honey-citrus tone, which complements the salinity of the oysters (and the prosciutto). If you are looking to cool down that tailgate chili as well, then this beer is your friend.
Pairing suggestions: Raw oysters with citrus mignonette, prosciutto-wrapped melon
Beer: Washout Wheat, Hefeweizen, Holy City Brewing, 5.3% ABV
Bartenders often are asked, “What’s local and similar to a Blue Moon?” and they often suggest this beer. Pronounced banana and clove flavors signal this is a traditional hefeweizen. So rich pairings, including cheese and some seafood, are the way to go (unless you feel like waiting to serve this with a creamy dessert perhaps).
Pairing suggestions: Any rich, mild collection of cheeses (such as the combo of mozzarella, gouda or brie) or smoked salmon dip, canapes, etc. Salmon may not exist at the Wash Out on Folly Beach — this beer’s namesake — but the two get along swimmingly together.
Beer: Funkmaster Brett & The Furious Hops, Belgian IPA, Revelry Brewing, 7% ABV
Revelry Brewing has made a big name for itself in the one short year it’s been in business, and the operation’s known for some big-tasting beers. A case in point is this India Pale Ale (available in growlers from the brewery), which is hop-tastic but with a lingering bitterness. It’s fun to play with contrasts here.
Pairing suggestions: Sweet potatoes, roasted vegetable salad, anything with maple bacon
Beer: Ghost Rider, American Pale Ale, Palmetto Brewing, 6.4% ABV
A limited release that is currently available by growler in the taproom and for the first time as six-pack bottles, this beer is finished over cherries and ghost peppers, making it sweetly addictive. Spicy is such a beverage trend, so share that with your guests.
Pairing suggestions: For the adventurous, any mustard- or vinegar-based pulled pork barbecue, and for the safer bet, oven-roasted pork loin with any sweet glaze of your choice.
Beer: Westbrook Mexican Cake (or any of its versions), Imperial Stout, 10.5% ABV
The Post and Courier documented the rise of this “cult” beer in our recent pages, so if you can score a bottle, then show off and share with your friends. This is flavor-packed, from cinnamon and vanilla, to the chocolatey, velvety mouthfeel of a stout, and it will be a delicious end to your dinner.
However, this beer is really rarely available for off-site drinking (away from the Westbrook taproom), so consult your local bottle shop for delicious “dessert” alternative suggestions, including bourbon barrel-aged porters or stouts.
Pairing suggestions: This beer is the dessert. No pairing needed.