Pairing food and wine is often called an ‘art,’ which for most of us might as well mean ‘leave it to the sommelier.’ Now craft beer is having its foodie moment, making its way onto Michelin-starred menus and multi-course tastings across the country. It’s also bringing that oft-dreaded complexity to having a brew with your meal. The craft beer industry recognizes more than 145 styles and has its own version of sommelier (called a Cicerone), and it might just be threatening to kick out the already perfect pilsner and beef burger for an American-style Grodziskie with lavender-kissed mutton (to match the smoky malt, of course).
Fred Bueltmann, author of the Beervangelist’s Guide to the Galaxy and owner of New Holland Brewing, says that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Bueltmann could easily play the connoisseur but, by his telling, he’d rather thoughtful meals with quality beer be about the experience. “The compliment for a great drink and dish combination is never ‘That was complex!'” says Bueltmann. “It’s ‘That was good!'”
To start, Bueltmann says to ignore the 100-plus varieties beer judges use. “Styles are like the dewy decimal system,” he says. “What really matters are the flavors.” He focuses on four flavors for beer: hops-forward, malt-forward, fermentation (or yeast) flavor, and additives like spices and fruit. But instead of learning the nuances of these categories, Fred says to drink beer, eat food, and find similarities in the two — what he calls a “flavor bridge, which is a doorman to the rest of the dish.”
We toured the Farm to Table Pavilion with Bueltmann at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival and checked out the offerings from 14 independent breweries who were paired with chefs around the country to make small plates that matched specific brews. Here are some lessons we took away from this delicious two-hour tour.