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Making the most of Pittsburgh's craft beer (by pairing it with the best kind of food)

I wanted to impress my craft beer-loving buddies with an amazing meal and great beer.

I whipped up citrusy tofu, a spring salad and strawberry yogurt parfaits and bought a six pack of Imperial Stout. I mean, a beer with “imperial” in the name has to taste amazing with everything, right?

Wrong. We were more than halfway through the meal when this beer-and-food-pairing novice realized that the guests had drained their water glasses while the beer mugs remained practically untouched. A couple of sips revealed the reason: The Imperial Stout, while not unpleasant, obliterated the delicate flavors of the food.

I knew then that I needed help figuring out what, exactly, to drink with dinner. I’ve done the leg work, and I want you to know that no matter what you have on your plate, there’s a beer for that.

The Theory Behind the Flavor
Craft beers come in innumerable varieties and are packed with nuance. Consequently, there are no hard and fast rules for pairings. Choosing an appropriate combination is as much about personal experimentation as it is about following the rules.

However, there are certain characteristics that will help you to find just the right accompaniment to your favorite craft beer. Such as:

1. Malt
Beers with a malt forward flavor tend to be sweet. Malty beers pair well with spicy food, as the sweetness diminishes the heat of the spicy cuisine. Malt, which shares a flavor profile with other ingredients like chocolate, caramel, and toffee, is also a good match for roasted, smoked and grilled foods.

2. Hop Bitterness
The bitterness of hops balances out rich foods, such as those with lots of butter and fat. The astringent taste reduces the heavy mouth-feel associated with rich foods, allowing you to fully enjoy the flavors of both the beer and the food you’re eating. Hoppiness balances the sweetness of both malt and food, and can pair well with everything from chicken alfredo to chocolate cake. However, the bitterness tends to intensify the taste of spicy food, so drink with caution if there are jalapeños are on the table.

3. Hop Flavor
The contribution of hops to beer is not confined to bitterness. Hops also provide flavor and aromatics. The flavors hops bring to the table vary widely, from earthy flavors like pine to tropical flavors like grapefruit and mango. When sipping a new craft beer pay attention to the hop flavor. If you are able to identify a similarity to a particular food type, you’re well on your way to a good pairing.

4. Carbonation
A beer’s carbonation impacts the way the flavors reach the tongue. A highly carbonated beer will scrub the palate clean and prepare it for the next bite of food or sip of beer.

5. Alcohol

The higher the alcohol level in a craft beer, the more it will emphasize spicy flavors. The alcohol acts as a solvent for the spices, allowing them uninhibited access to your taste buds. Generally, beer has lower alcohol content than wine and is more flexible relative to heavily spiced cuisine.

Pairing Tips
Often (but not always), it makes sense to pair like with like when it comes to beer and food, particularly in terms of flavor strength and ingredients.

Linda Nyman, Co-Owner of Penn Brewery, explains, “I would suggest trying a light beer with light food. More potent entrees should be paired with stronger beers.”

Nyman recommends pairing a light fish entrée with Penn Brewery’s Cool River Kölsch, a summer beer that comes out in June. On the other hand, if you were having a spicy Mexican dish, Penn Dark, a Munich Dunkel Lager, would better compliment the stronger flavors. For more suggestions, you can check out Penn Brewery’s beer and food Pairing Guide.

You can also look for harmonies among ingredients, and their preparation, in order to find an accompaniment that will make the both the beer and the meal shine. For example, the East End Brewing Company’s notorious Monkey Boy Hefeweizen, with notes of clove and banana, would pair well with fruit-based desserts like banana cream pie.

Let the Locals Lead the Way
If you’re like me, all of craft beer’s variety might leave you feeling like you need the advice of the experts. Fortunately, Pittsburgh’s vibrant craft beer scene offers ample opportunities to pick up pairing tips from brew masters and enthusiastic beer aficionados. Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week (PCBW), which runs from April 19th to 27th, features more than 200 craft beer related events around the region, including nearly twenty paired beer and tasting menus at local establishments.

Colleen Leary, board member of the Pittsburgh Craft Beer Alliance, suggests that individuals looking for beer and food pairing examples attend the Farm to Fork Beer Dinner at the Bocktown Bar and Grill or the Victory Dinner Pairing at Salt of the Earth, both on April 23rd, for a chance to explore the combination of fresh, locally sourced food and expertly paired regional craft beers.

Both events “give our community a chance to shine, both from a food perspective and a craft beer perspective, with very unique courses” Leary says.

If you can’t make it to PCBW, local craft breweries are available to support those curious about craft beer year round. The East End Brewing Company offers Growler Hours, where you can come and test out the fare every day but Monday.

East End Brewing Company’s brew master Scott Smith notes the similarities between creating a recipe and brewing a beer, saying that “the act of constructing a beer is a cooking process. I use what I have and what tastes good. You can think about pairings in the same way. I would start with our Fat Gary Nut Brown Ale and a nice rich cheese. It’s even great as an ingredient in Fondue.”

Smith adds, “In my opinion, there is no better combination than a pale ale, like our flagship Big Hop IPA, and pizza from Aiello’s Pizza or Spak Brothers. It may seem cliché, but I actually think it’s overlooked.”

At the Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville, head brew master Matthew Moninger suggests that individuals new to the craft beer scene start with the brewery’s Pious Monk Dunkle, an amber lager that pairs exceptionally well with meat cuts and mushrooms, or the Celestial Gold, a blend of German and Czech pilsners that goes well with spicy cuisines like jambalaya.

The Church Brew Works will host a Brewer ‘Dinner on April 25th, featuring five courses of expertly paired beer and food entrees that focus on seafood offerings matched with the flavor profiles of the brewery’s craft beer offerings.

Pairing Specifics
There may not be set rules, but some pairings consistently work better than others. These specific pairings almost always work out for novice craft beer drinkers and experts alike.

Golden or blonde ale, American wheat ale, lightly hopped lager
These beers are your go-to thirst quenchers. They are low in both maltiness and hoppiness, making them mild and perfect for novice beer drinkers. These beers pair well with very spicy food.

Weissbier, dunkelweiss
These beers are heavily flavored by the yeast used in the brewing process, so you’ll do best to pair with foods that have delicate taste that allow that flavor to shine through. Pick light soups, pastas and cheese or lightly flavored vegetarian fare.

Amber ale
Amber Ale is a good option for any meal that isn’t particularly sweet. It goes well with hearty sandwiches, soups, pizza, barbecue or Mexican food.

Bitter, pale ale, India pale ale, German/Bohemian pilsners
The bitterness in these brews can bit a bit much on their own, but when paired with rich flavors their strong hoppiness can cut through grease and acidic food, balancing the flavors perfectly. Pair with fried seafood, salads, smoked, boiled, steamed or broiled seafood. Use caution when pairing them with highly spiced cuisine, as they will enhance the heat. The fruitier pale ales may also complement lamb, beef, game or rich meats like liver pate.

English or American brown ale
Pair these hearty, hoppy brews with hearty meats like sausage, hamburger, smoked fish or wild game.

Porter, dry or oatmeal stout
These beers pair well with rich dishes like meat with gravy, barbecue, shepherd’s pie or stew. They have flavors that accompany seafood dishes like oysters and can stand up to stronger cheese such as sharp cheddar and blue cheese.

Cream or sweet stout, imperial stout
These beers are made for dessert and pair particularly well with chocolate. Try them with fruity chocolate desserts, caramel, cheese cake or something nutty.

Vienna lager/Oktoberfest/Mäarzen, dark lager, bock
These beers make good all-around food beers, but are not as filling as ales. Lagers can cut the heaviness in sauce-based meat dishes like chicken paprikash, goulash or pork roulade and will stand up to their strong flavors. These are great beers for pretzels and mustard, while sweeter versions can complement spiced desserts such as pumpkin pie or spice cake.

Fruit beers, lambics
These sweeter beers can be paired with light fruity desserts, such as soufflés or chiffon cake, but sour ones will overwhelm fruit flavors. Some lambics pair well with dark chocolate, and all work well with entrees that are prepared with fruit.

Old ale, barley wine
These are among the heartiest of all the brews and call for only the strongest
accompaniments, like strong cheese and super-dark chocolate. Otherwise, enjoy their maltiness and flavor alone.

There’s plenty more to learn, so don’t stop now. For more detailed information on how different types of craft beer interact with different flavors, check out the Craft Beer Food and Pairing Chart published by the national Brewers Association.

Looking for more local venues to test your culinary beer muscles? Check out these breweries, brewpubs and bottle shops.

All Saints Brewing
1602 U.S. 119 Greensburg, PA 15601
(724) 433-5998

Arsenal Cider
300 39th St Pittsburgh, PA 15201
(412) 260-6968

Church Brew Works
3525 Liberty Ave Pittsburgh, PA 15201
(412) 688-8200

Draai Laag Brewing
501 E Ohio St Millvale, PA 15209

East End Brewing
147 Julius St, Pittsburgh, PA 15206

Full Pint Brewing
1963 Lincoln Highway, North Versailles, PA 15137

Helltown Brewing
13 Henry C Frick Street Mt Pleasant, PA 15666

Hofbräuhaus Pittsburgh
2705 S Water St Pittsburgh, PA 15203
(412) 235-7065

Penn Brewery
800 Vinial St Pittsburgh, PA 15212
(412) 237-9400

337 N Shore Dr Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15212
(412) 322-5000

Rock Bottom
171 Bridge St. Homestead, PA 15120
(412) 462-2739

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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