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Oakes Weekly - January 19, 2008

My Thoughts on Beer and Food Pairings
Oakes Weekly January 19, 2008      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

I can’t decide if I like the big push I’m seeing when it comes to beer and food pairings. I mean, I get it. Beer goes with food. But something doesn’t sit quite right with me.

First, it’s old news being dressed up as new news. OK, my old news isn’t everybody’s old news but I just thought I’d get that off my chest.

Second, it goes into that whole “wanna-be wine” thing. Wine with food is not inherently better and in fact I find it usually worse. But that’s me. The problem with wine & food pairing is that while I get how it can work at a really high level, most of us aren’t sommeliers and don’t have access to a wine list that would allow us to perfectly match our meals and drinks. So on the everyday level, we get vague matches based on whatever is handy (or affordable). I guess that’s why I’m usually not keen.

Which may explain why I’m also not keen on doing the same thing with beer. Precision is important. What I see a lot of are clumsy matches. Either the establishment in question doesn’t have all that many beers to begin with, or the whole thing is a “beer dinner” put on by a brewery or importer. I’m too anal to accept artificial constraints. I just know it isn’t as good as it could be.

Then there’s shoehorning beer into some of the dishes. It’s not that you can’t cook with beer. It’s been done. But it’s often kind of needless. The best beer dishes are ones where beer is the first liquid of choice, not a substitute that is only being used for the purposes of cuteness.

Am I being too anal? Maybe. Joe Average isn’t so fussy, so maybe I should chill. What I see with wines is a pretentiousness. Because there are such things as sommeliers and restaurants with mindblowing wine lists that facilitate perfect matches, there is a certain trickle-down effect so that every soccer mom who puts a random chardonnay together with salmon thinks she’s a genius. We can do that with beer, too, I guess, but to me it just brings that same pretentiousness to the table. That turns me off.

So maybe I’d be happier with the whole beer & food thing if I had faith that it was being done by people armed with more than just good intentions.

The cause of good beer to me is best served by highlighting beer’s diversity, not trying to directly emulate wine. That will always make beer the poor second cousin. Is it not good enough to highlight the beauty of a robust imperial stout after a day on the slopes? Doesn’t a crisp pale ale blow minds after a long bike ride in the summer? Could a sunny spring morning with a gueuze be anything other than perfect?

The beauty of beer is its simplicity. Beer is the people’s beverage. It has no pretensions associated with it. It is peasant food.

Yes, peasant food has a certain lack of appeal in North America but that is only because we’ve lost track of how good peasant food is supposed to be. Our low-end food is total crap, stuff that barely contains recognizable ingredients much less genuine cooking techniques.

Real peasant food is fresh local ingredients, prepared simply. Ideas prove themselves over decades or centuries. That’s where beer came from. A lot of our styles are fairly modern inventions, yes, but many are not. Be it weizen or lambic, bock or barley wine, the ideas for these brews go back centuries. Other styles died out and many did so because they weren’t as good.

This may run directly against the current trends in brewing – the whole experimentation thing and the extreme brewing. There’s a place for that. I can eat that kind of food, too, if it’s done by a good chef. But for me, there’s always a home for a bowl of pho. Or mapo dofu. Steak and kidney pie. Beans and rice. Barbeque. Borscht. Bring it. If you want to know where I think beer ought to be this is it.

It spent decades in swill-land, slumming with Whoppers and hot dogs, bad pizza and $2 steak. It’s not fine dining, and I don’t think it ought to be. Let wine have that. Let the snobs do their thing, floating from one flavour of the month to the next. Beer should be a bit more timeless than that. It’s been around since the dawn of civilization, after all. Just like meat cooked over fire. Just like soups made from your local market goods. Just like pies.

I like my beer and food pairings old school. Steam up some clams and mussels. You can pair that with wit, gueuze, IPA or helles and it will be awesome. That’s what I’m getting it. Simple, timeless and sublime. No cuteness or pretentiousness needed.

Thank you for listening.


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start quote Let the snobs do their thing, floating from one flavour of the month to the next. Beer should be a bit more timeless than that. end quote