The Session #17 - Embracing oppression
In the realm of wine and food pairing, one of the elements that's taken into consideration when marrying the two is whether or not your aim is to complement characteristics of both - matching a Sauvignon blanc with prosciutto-wrapped melon, for example - or, instead, to provide an exciting contrast between them - like pairing a citrusy Chardonnay with shrimp that had been tossed in olive oil and garlic. Either way, the aim is to produce a third, almost ghostlike taste impression that hovers between the two like one of those Magic Eye pictures, or that finger sausage thing you may have done in grade school: In one case, you've conjured up an übermelon via playing up a highlight quality of both the wine and the food; in the other case, the two work together to create, in a sense, a third, new dish, with the acid from the wine cutting into the oil in the same way that adding a lemon would contribute a bright new dimension.
In beer terms, one could argue that we've all been trained to pair our choices in regards to the contrast they provide, with our environment as the other variable. Think, for example, if instead of being inundated (but oh, there are worse ways to be inundated!) with "winter warmers" during the cold months, you were presented with beers that actually reinforced the chill - say, light, pale lagers served at near-freezing temperatures. Madness, you say. Those of you who stuck around to talk some sense into me would probably then note that the bevy of robust, complex, and yes, warming ales that make themselves at home amidst sunless hours of winter do more than ward off the effects of Jack Frost: they also pair much better with the rich comfort foods of the season. Take, for example, porters with endlessly-cooked stews, Belgian dubbels with slow-roasted root vegetables, and doppelbocks with the seasonal depression-lifting power of chocolate. It could be said, then, that while the beer styles that we traditionally associate with wintertime are in contrast with the weather, they do, however, complement the cuisine (which doesn't get much more literal than the sharing of spices between traditional European Christmas cookies and Christmas beers).
Which brings us to the present, at which we northern hemisphere-dwellers have just passed the opposite solstice, and along with it, summer and its litany of pale, light-bodied, lawnmower-friendly, 6-pack just ain't enough you gotta buy 'em by the halfrack, "you done with that? I'm gonna stick it up this chicken's butt", enough with the wheat already, "I like mine with lime", but undeniably refreshing seasonal offerings. Which I can understand on many levels, even while pretending to ignore the fact that summer in San Francisco is, well, you know... (It makes even more sense now that I live just far enough outside of the grip of the maritime weather phenomenon that we can watch the fringes of the eagermost tendrils of fog creep threateningly into view over the coastal ridge, only to be vanquished by the righteous dry heat of the proper emperor of the season, a complete stranger to those of us who grew up in the City, the sun.) And certainly, the suggestion that one would enjoy a nice, warmed goblet of Quelque Chose after rounding the bases after a few midday innings would invite some to examine my sanity. Don't worry: I get it.
So there's your weather-based contrast, right? Cold out: warming beer. Hot out: cooling beer. If the above equation were to work, then you would assume that the cooling beer would be in line with summertime cuisine by complementing it. But for me, summer means barbecue, and that's where the math breaks down: A kickass barbecued meal almost always deserves a more thoughtfully chosen beer pairing than your run-of-the-mill (by which I mean "premium" or "select", naturally) fizzy yellow stuff. In order to truly complement the sweet, spicy, smoky, greasy and oh-so-carcinogenically-good experience of the grill, I find I have to dig a little deeper into my fridge to make the pairing really sing.
The idea for this Session came to me as the days began getting longer and warmer, the produce at the farmer's market began to shift into high summer mode, and the thought of doing any cooking inside of a house that was breaking 90° was unimaginable. With the primordial call of the beast sounding a low rumble from my outdoor altar, I quickly noticed that even the summer seasonals I most look forward to, alongside all the usual suspects of wits, saisons, and geuezes, weren't really clicking. When I found myself, delirious from the heat, sweating, panting, and paralyzed from trying to not exert any effort while lying prone in front of an enormous shop fan, desperately craving a Gulden Draak, I knew it might be something to investigate here.
And so, a quick set of pairings with some otherwise unethical choices for summertime beer enjoyment which play into the hands of the season, embrace the inevitable, celebrate the circumstance, and fight fire with fire:
Strong, pale, and bitter: Anyone who's desperately searched for a remedy to the scorching spice and piquancy of a skewer of classic grilled Creole shrimp would be wise to reach for a West Coast style IPA like those from Lagunitas, Bear Republic or Stone that can both temper the heat through its citric acidity, crisp effervescence , and capiscum-soluble alcohol, while asserting its own aromatic spice character to elevate the subtler flavors in the shrimp seasoning that might've gotten lost amidst the burn. Of course, it's even more effective if you reach for a double IPA, instead...
Strong, dark, and bitter: Roasted malts? Astringent blackness? Add to that the hints of smoke and coffee you get from an imperial stout like North Coast's Old Rasputin and you've got a nice foil for that hunk of evil, charred beef (or tempeh!) that you're planning on piling up with a blue cheese and chili dressing. And when you turn to your cabernet-sucking tablemates, "How much more black could this be?", they'll be forced to answer: "None. None more black."
Strong, pale, and sweet: Belgian strong golden ales and tripels aren't your only choices here, as some German winter specialties also kinda fit the description (southern hemisphere friends, you're in luck!) such as Weltenburger's Winter-Traum, but few of them match the devilishly innocent-looking Belgians, like Delirium Tremens, in complexity and richness, or their ability to stand up to a fat and pungent bacon burger with Gorgonzola cheese, where the bready yeast aroma complements the bun, the slight sweetness works with the caramel flavors in the meat, and the extreme carbonation and dry finish help clean the fats from the palate.
Strong, dark and sweet: Not that I ever need an excuse to venture into the deep end, it would be easy for me to dedicate a book of sestinas to the food pairings one could achieve with high-alcohol, dark ales such as the aforementioned Gulden Draak and its Belgian kin, barleywines, and old ales. Instead, let's keep this one simple and perfect: pulled pork sandwiches with a wee heavy scotch ale like Orkney's SkullSplitter. The sweet smokiness of the pork gets a leg up by this island concoction's tireless malt backbone for a truly coma-inducing umami richness.
Hopefully, none of the above pairings would appear disastrously ill-conceived. Alongside the rich, sweet, and spicy flavors one typically associates with memorable bbq, there belongs a comparable set of rich, sweet, and spicy beers. Divorced from the food they're meant to adjoin, though, the selections of a double IPA, imperial stout, Belgian strong golden, and scotch ale seem like ludicrous choices for the perfect summertime quaff. Granted, it doesn't entirely explain why while being punished by these inhuman conditions, I'd be craving a perilously wicked black Belgian strong ale that's nearly as alcoholic as Riesling and demands a loaf of bread and a chaser of water just to avoid feeling overwhelmed, but maybe, deep inside, I enjoy embracing the oppression of this relatively new experience of a summertime distinguished by heat, sun, and fire, rather than this.
* The image at top is for decoration only. I do not endorse or condone the drinking of Bamberg's rauchbier without the supervision of an adult who can, after you've had a sip, remind you that you asked for it.
The Session is a blog carnival originated by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer, which just so happens to be hosted this month by yours truly. If you've got a post of your own that you'd like to add, either email me at or comment on this site so I can include it in the roundup tomorrow. For a summary of the Sessions thus far, check out Brookston's handy guide.