For six summers during university, I worked at a brewery. It paid my way through a couple of degrees. And, yes, it was so long ago that a guy could afford tuition, textbooks, a weekly six-pack of Molson Stock Ale and the occasional Steely Dan LP with earnings from a good seasonal job. A friend from those thirst-quenching days (five free beers a shift!) had an endlessly amusing mantra about our favourite beverage. Pressed for why he rarely ate lunch, Sylvio would quip: "Steak in a bottle."
Sylvio delivered the line facetiously, but I fear that some Canadian drinkers of more moderate thirst tend to treat their malted barley in essentially the same way. It's something they quaff almost exclusively in the absence of food.
Beer is not dinner, I hasten to add. Nor is it lunch or breakfast, as Sylvio sometimes insisted..
But it can pair nicely with at least the first two. Beer-and-food pairing remains something of a primitive art in these wine-soaked times. That's a shame, because the panoply of new, full-flavoured microbrews has given gourmets and chefs a rich new palette to draw from. Think rich, dark ales with burgers or fragrant wheat beers with salads and other zesty starters. Even desserts can have their day in the suds through such bold brews as coffee porter and Belgian-style fruit beers. And with the warm, thirst-generating weather upon us, there hasn't been a better time to play match game.
"I experiment more with beer; it's more my palate," says Lee Humphries, executive chef at the Irish Heather gastropub in Vancouver and several other local establishments controlled by culinary entrepreneur Sean Heather. Humphries, who is from Cornwall, England, lives by two beer-pairing gospels when he dines. The straightforward approach, he says, involves weight. The lighter the food is, the lighter-bodied the beverage should be. For example, a pilsner or a lager works well with salads and simple seafood. For heavier fare, he might choose a fuller-bodied brew - say, an amber or dark ale. It's a pretty reliable rule of thumb.
But there's another way to slice things, depending on your beer-appreciation level. As with wine, acids in a beer can help to cut fats and cleanse the palate. So certain crisp, lighter brews, such as Nickel Brook Premium Organic Lager or Old Credit Pale Pilsner, both of which are from Ontario, can stand up to rich meats such as lamb.
Fatty meats also are a good foil for strongly hopped beers. Hops impart a bitter edge that can counterbalance oily foods and even sweet barbecue sauces. Hoppy styles include pale ales and aptly named bitter ales, the latter especially from England. I love Creemore Springs Kellerbier, a heavily hopped, limited-release Ontario brew that also pairs nicely with braised meats and grilled sausages and is available this season.
Conversely, a creamy Guinness, the dark Irish dry stout that gets its colour and slightly burnt flavour from roasted barley, pairs nicely with delicate raw oysters. "For me, the darker beers, like stout, always have a little bit of a mineral content to them," Humphries says, adding that the taste harmonizes with the briny quality of the mollusks.
Among my favourite food partners are the distinctive, oak-aged beers of Scotland's Innis & Gunn, available in liquor stores. Though robust and high in alcohol, they boast a creamy texture, subtle sweetness and low bitterness that complements rather than overpowers some delicate dishes, such as seared or grilled scallops wrapped in smoky bacon.
Lucy Waverman's beer-friendly recipes on this page offer considerable latitude for both of Humphries' approaches. But there are some choices that almost suggest themselves.
For the roasted asparagus with remoulade sauce, Humphries instantly suggested a wheat ale, a refreshing style made with wheat instead of the usual barley. Often flavoured with coriander (when brewed in the Belgian, versus German, style), wheat beers are a classic springtime beverage in northern Europe. Humphries is partial to White Bark from Driftwood Brewery in Victoria; it has a rich, malty character and floral accents. But if you prefer your beer to linger in the background and let the asparagus, as Humphries says, "speak for itself," consider a crisp, simpler lager.
Other good choices for the asparagus dish include Muskoka Hefe-Weissbier from Ontario, with its strong notes of banana and clove, and the relatively smooth Rickard's White from big brewer Molson Coors Canada. The latter is unfiltered and boasts a naturally cloudy-blond appearance.
Mirella Amata, who runs a Toronto-based consulting company called Beerology and is Canada's first female certified beer sommelier, says the recent explosion in wheat beers can jazz up springtime salads and other lighter fare. "It's a great beer because it's refreshing but it's also flavourful, so it will stand up to foods," says Amata, who recently earned her certification from the Chicago-based Craft Beer Institute. She's partial to Mill Street Wit as well as the new Hop City Lawn Chair Classic Weisse and Denison's Weissbier, all from Ontario.
For the Bombay chicken recipe on this page, Amata recommends an English-style bitter. "English beers," she says, "use very aromatic hops," which harmonize with the Indian spices. But you don't have to splurge on an import. Solid domestic choices include Granite Best Bitter from a Toronto brewpub that sells take-home bottles and kegs (www.granitebrewery.ca) and Wellington Brewery Arkell Best Bitter from Guelph, Ont.
Humphries says a hoppy India pale ale would match well with the Bombay chicken, as would a rich, European-style cask ale. "You don't want the beer to get lost," he says. One good choice available in British Columbia, he says, is Red Devil Pale Ale from Vancouver's R&B Brewing. A good option from Ontario is Black Oak Pale Ale.
My choice, finally, for the grilled Nutella and banana-bread sandwich recipe would be a rich stout, such as Brooklyn Brewery's Black Chocolate Stout, available in some liquor stores. Humphries, who has conducted promotional events for Molson Coors, recommends Rickard's Dark, which he says has a sweet maple overtone that harmonizes with many desserts. He's even paired the beer with his own bacon-infused ice cream.
And if pork-flavoured dessert sounds odd, consider Humphries' beer vessel of choice when dining. "I drink my beer at home out of a wineglass," he says. "Everybody says I'm nuts for [doing so] But when the wife's drinking wine and looking kind of sophisticated, the last thing I want to do is be drinking beer out of a bottle."
Or, worse, a can.