Some months ago I had a delightful dinner at Gramercy Tavern in New York that included poached lobster with turnips and daikon; duck breast with white sweet potato and sherry maple endive; a selection of farmhouse cheeses; and bittersweet chocolate mousse with hazelnut brittle for dessert. The food was paired with appropriate beverages, but the beverages weren’t wines, they were beers.
While beer can be simple refreshment, it can also be remarkably complex, like vintage ales such as the Brooklyn Brewery’s 2005 Monster Ale and George Gale & Co. 1999 Prize Old Ale from England, both of which are on Gramercy’s 60-beer list. The breadth of styles–from light and yeasty wheat beers to dark and chocolaty stouts–offers almost endless possibilities for food matching.
“Except for Dover sole, I can’t think of anything on our menu that doesn’t go well with beer,” says Melissa Monosoff Master Sommelier at Savona restaurant in suburban Philadelphia, where she has bulked up the selection of suds from eight to 50 beers in the two years she’s been there.
One reason for beer’s versatility is that beer makers have more tools to work with than winemakers, particularly in the United States. They can use adjuncts (grains such as corn, rice and oats in lieu of or in addition to traditional barley) and an almost unlimited number of flavors, including peaches, beet juice and pumpkin as well as spices such as allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg. “A wine may taste like ginger, but in beer, ginger may be the actual ingredient,” Monosoff says.
Americans are less knowledgeable about beer than wine, but that can be a good thing, according to Kevin Mahan, managing partner at Gramercy Tavern. “Because they are less educated about beer, they are more willing to take chances and experiment than they would with wine,” Mahan says.
Mahan categorizes beer like wine. Lighter lagers, pilsners, wheat beers and Belgian lambics are the equivalent of aromatic white wines, he says. Variations within this category would be akin to the variations in white wines. For example, Brooklyn Brewery’s Lager is bigger and richer than traditional lagers. So Mahan likens it to full-throttle California Chardonnays. Lighter European lagers are more similar to lean Sancerres, he says. Ales, from pale ales to dark and robust stouts, mirror the range of red wines, from Beaujolais to Cabernet Sauvignon.
As is the case with wine, lighter beers are served colder, heavier beers warmer. Stouts, for example, should be served at cellar temperature, about 55 degrees.
Here are four recipes matched with the appropriate beer.