Last Wednesday, June 20, Kildare’s hosted local beer educator Chase Jones, and Chris DeMarco, a Victory Brewing Co. brewer, for an educational seminar and food pairing. The duo set out to show that beer is an art and a science, not a lowbrow chug. Attendees of the seminar included the WC Beer Ladies and many other resident beer enthusiasts. Tickets were $20 a person, and included three flights and three snacky courses to pair.
Before the tasting began, Chase and Chris served up an informative summary of the brewing process.
First, they talked about some brewing basics. Beer contains four main ingredients: water, malted grain, hops, and yeast. In addition, brewers may use spices, flavors, or syrups to produce a more distinctive taste. “All of [the ingredients] contribute to flavor profile, appearance, and head retention,” said Chase. He then explained that brewing is a chemical process, so any contamination or variation of ingredients could completely change the end product.
Brewing is centered around the reaction of malt and yeast. First, brewers will germinate the grain to create simple sugars, then stop the germination and crush the malted grain to make the sugars accessible. Yeast is a fungus that consumes the simple sugars to produce energy. The malt-yeast energy reaction also produces CO2 and ethyl alcohol, “which is why we all drink beer,” Chase jokes. Other byproducts of the sugar-yeast reaction vary “depending on what type of yeast and malt you use, and they can affect the flavor and appearance.” Chase continued, “Many brewers will use three to four different kinds of grains in their beer. This can help make the beer aesthetically and aromatically more appealing.”
Yeast’s role in brew variability is a little different. The two basic categories of yeast are lager yeast and ale yeast. Lager yeasts are fermented and conditioned at lower temperatures, and for a longer period of time than ale yeasts. Lager varieties generally produce a cleaner, more earthy, and slightly grainy brew.
Ale yeasts, on the other hand, are fermented at warmer temperatures. The high-temperature fermentation process yields complex, fruity, and flowery flavors that are not found in lagers.
The body and aroma created by malt and yeast can be amped by the addition of hops. Hops are flower clusters available in over 1,000 varieties. “Orginally, people thought [the hop plant] was a weed!” Chase says. Luckily for us beer lovers, hops were discovered for their true potential, and have since been used in brewing to add flavor, bitterness, and spice. Popular hop varieties in craft brewing are Cascade, Amarillo and Tomahawk.
Hops can create different flavors depending on the type of hops, and when they are added to the boil. The two broad hop categories are high-alpha-acid hops, and high-beta-acid hops. “Think of a really strong IPA. You get that POW! bitterness at the beginning,” Chase says. That type of bitterness is produced by high-alpha-acid hops. Chris from Victory Brewing Co. adds, “The longer you boil [alpha-acid hops], the more bitter it’s going to get.” Anyone who has ever tried Dogfish Head 60 min IPA can attest that alpha-acids boiled for 60 minutes will produce a very bitter brew.
Beta-acid hops don’t produce bitterness, but instead, flavorful, spicy tones in beer. “Beta-acid hops are isomerizable, which means that heat can actually destroy them,” Chris said. Because their flavors can be destroyed at high temperatures, beta-acid hops are added at the end of the boiling process – anywhere from the last 5 to 15 minutes.
The last determining factor of a brew’s body is water. Hard and soft water can produce very different beers, even if everything else is the same. Hard water contains minerals and ions that can react with compounds in the brew to produce a variety of flavors. Chase provided the example of Germany and the Czech Republic: each country produced pilsners using the same malts, same yeasts, same temperatures, and same hops, yet the two brews tasted dramatically different. “Turned out, the soft water of the Czech Republic changed the entire profile of the pilsner,” Chase concluded.
After the lesson, it was time to taste! To help tasters describe their experiences, Victory Brewmasters devised a handy tool called the Victory Food and Beer Pairing Guide. The guide provides descriptors and linking words so tasters could put a word to their taste.
The first flight and bite: A pilsner flight paired with a cheese plate, and chips and hot salsa. Pairing the pils with cheese, it became easy to see how a round pilsner flavor, with a crisp start, bitter middle, and honey-sweet finish compliments a savory, pungent Munster cheese. The hot salsa and pilsner paired a different way. After a bite of hot salsa, a swig of pilsner would neutralize the hot, peppery oils.
Second came a flight of India Pale Ales. IPAs act oppositely of pilsners. Where pilsners cancel flavors, IPAs are better at enhancing. A hoppy, bitter IPA paired with a plate of hot, spicy Buffalo wings revealed one instance in which it may truly be best to fight fire with fire. The taste explosion that results is definitely worth experiencing.
Last was a dessert flight and bite: a dark chocolate and raspberry plate paired with three Belgian-style ales, and the famous Victory Storm King Stout. The sweet and savory tones of the Belgians harmonized with the raspberry, while contrasting with the chocolate. The chocolate was better paired with the smoky, bitter, and mineral flavors of the stout.
While a Miller Lite may pair with anything (or nothing, depending on who you ask), it was interesting to see the true pairing potential of popular brews. Beer may never be as coveted for food pairing as wine, but beer culture is growing. The increasing popularity of microbreweries and home brewing has fostered flavor experimentation, new techniques, and greater enthusiasm toward beer as viable food pair.