There's a new front on the beer vs. wine wars: the dinner table.
The increasing presence of complex, flavor-packed brews has made that beverage just as viable a food-pairing option as wine. Waitpersons might not be inquiring, "Will we be having fermented grapes or fermented grains with dinner?" But many diners have moved light years beyond Bud and brats.
"Beer can be just as complex and just as interesting and just as, well, fancy as wine," said Scott Pampuch, who recently ramped up the beer list at his Corner Table restaurant in south Minneapolis.
Pampuch particularly likes the way certain beers work with food such as "the dreaded, you'll-never-pair-wine-with-this green beans."
"Anything with an acidic tone, instead of battling with a riesling or other white German wine," he said, "throw out a real nice, caramelly beer with toasty undertones."
Another acidic, wine-busting dish, salad with a sharp vinaigrette, melds splendidly with an India Pale Ale, said Jason Alvey, owner of the craft-beer store Four Firkins in St. Louis Park.
"The flavor-profile range is incredible. Beer is physically more complex [than wine], has more ingredients, more stuff going on," said Alvey, citing the spices and fruits that might go into a brew along with the grain and hops.
But as complex as some of the offerings have gotten, Alvey said, it's still, well, beer. "It's not elitist. It's not intimidating like wine," he said. "If a beer label says it tastes like chocolate or licorice, it slaps you in the face with chocolate or licorice. The flavors are very, very obvious. With wine, people are going 'I'm not getting this black cherry.'"
Beer has another advantage over still wines: bubbles. Especially with spicy foods, a swell match with India pale ales (IPAs).
"The carbonation helps to strip those pepper oils off the tongue," said Linda Haug, owner/manager of Café Twenty Eight in Minneapolis' Linden Hills neighborhood. "It serves as a palate refresher, like champagne."Branch out - or don't
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the food-pairing guidelines for beer and wine have a lot in common. And no, we're not talking about stout with dark meats, pale (ale) with white meats.
Matching up weight and texture and even elements such as smoky flavors (at right) is a smart approach.
"That's really what you're looking for," said Pampuch: "the weight and how it hits your palate. Does it come off rounder like a good lager or heavier like a stout?"
There are some tried-and-true matchups such as dark, high-alcohol beers with steak and smoky Rauchbiers with barbecue or grilled brats. Haug and Pampuch both extolled the merits of chocolate desserts accompanied by the heavy, alternately bitter and sweet elements of a Russian Imperial Stout.
But alas, as with wine, it's not always so simple. "Brown ales tend to do really well with heavier meats, but not porters," Pampuch said. "Plus, everybody's mouth is so subjective. Stout and braised short ribs, people say that's a great pairing, sure. But all these people that try to give us rules, that match might not work for someone."
That's why Pampuch has a recommendation that also applies to wine: "If you've got a beer you really, really love, stick with it."
Still, with all those flavors and textures available on ever-more-crowded store shelves and restaurant menus, there's never been a better time to experiment. "If you can't find a beer to go with a certain kind of food," said Alvey, "then you're not trying hard enough."