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Beer Pairing 101 from the Barrio's Head of Brewing

Pairings. They’re kind of the pinnacle of the gourmet experience. But, not only do you need to have some basic familiarity with both food and beverage to execute a single solid coupling (let alone parings for several courses), but you also need to have some concept of the ways in which those flavors are going to interact. For this reason, it seems as though the average person—and most novice foodies—are intimidated by the idea of creating their own pairings, especially when the intention is to share those match-ups with other people.

Still, Barrio Brewing Co.'s Head Brewer Steve Thompson insists that there is “no wrong answer” when it comes to building perfect food and beverage pairings and that, really, it all pretty much boils down to preference. Below, we breakdown Thompson’s tips for pairing your favorite pub and grub staples and, whether you consider yourself well-versed in the craft of matching craft beers to cuisine, or you are just starting to dabble in the practice, his expertise on the subject is certainly worth a gander. Here’s what he had to say:

1. Consider Your Beer.

“I like to start by asking, ‘What are the main flavors of the beer?’” Thompson says. He says that most beers will fall into one of three categories—aromatic and bitter hop-centric ales like pale ales and IPAs, malt-centric ales like Scottish varieties and porters, and yeast-centric beers such as hefeweizens and Belgian-style beers. Sours and goses are an up-and-coming category all their own, as well, though they tend to behave more like the yeast-centric varieties than their bitter/hoppy or sweet/roasted/malty counterparts.

2. Consider Your Flavor Goals.

Once you’ve picked a brew or two (or three or four) to work with, Thompson says it’s time to “start thinking about the food components—do you want to compliment the beer's flavor, do you want to contrast it, or do you more want to bridge, or melt, those flavors together?” Complimentary flavors, for instance, might come from a citrusy IPA paired with a mandarin orange salad, or from the pairing of a dessert stout with cheesecake. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can even use a stout to make floats “so the sweetness of the ice cream compliments the richness of the stout,” Thompson explains. When working with contrasting flavors, which Thompson suggests tends to be the best option with yeast-centric brews, it’s important to think about flavors that might cut through the stronger flavors of the beer, such as a sweet-and-salty pairing of sweet potato fries with a hefeweizen.

3.Think About Flavor Intensity.

“If the intensity of a flavor is real high,” says Thompson, “you probably want to contrast it” rather than compliment it; using saltiness to cut down on the pungent yeast flavor of a hef’, for instance. Similarly, adding a spicy topping like grilled jalapenos to a burger will reduce the experience of bitterness in more hop-forward brews, though the very same bitterness can be utilized to “cut through” the rich, fatty flavor of the beef. More subtle flavors, like the background aromatics of a light IPA or the chocolate notes of a stout, tend to make strong compliments to the subtleties of your food choices.

4. Start Tasting!

When you are actually doing the tasting portion of your pair planning, Thompson recommends that you work your way from light beers to dark in order to avoid “blowing out your palate” early in the experience. The same goes for serving pairings in courses; begin with a salad or appetizer and a blonde ale or pilsner, then work your way up to denser beers with higher alcohol content. Also, it’s important to taste each item on its own, and then to see how the pair works together. “Taste each one separately,” Thompson says, referring to each beer and paired food item, “but then taste them together—actually taste them together in your mouth because the flavor will change, and it’ll be a new experience.”

So, those are the basics—categorize your beers, get acquainted with the flavors in them, decide if you want to compliment or contrast those flavors with whatever you will be eating, and get to tasting! Still, your favorite pairing is going to come down to preference. “No one’s really wrong for liking what they like—it’s just a matter of trial error until you find whatever your ideal combination is,” Thompson says. In short, there’s no arguing with good taste or, for that matter, great flavor.

Keep an eye out for upcoming beer pairing dinners at Gentle Ben's. Details available soon...

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