110306 Beer makes a welcome guest with some fine foods

BEER AND hot dogs, beer and pizza, beer and stuffed cabbage… The classic beer and food combos are not exactly out of Bon Appetit.

Even as craft brewers and restaurants push the cuisine envelope, most of us still see beer as something to wash down a $1.89 bag of pretzels. No problem with that, except that when we finally do chow down on decent grub, why is it we habitually uncork the wine?

Just look at what diners pull out of those Thermos bags at your neighborhood BYO. Half of ’em are beer-drinkers, I’ll bet, who wouldn’t know pinot noir from peanut chews. But sit ’em down at a white tablecloth and they go all “vin du blah-blah, s’il vous plait” on ya.

Part of the reason, I think, is our still-narrow view of beer: a frosty pitcher of Coors Light. Somehow the suds you knocked back while enjoying the game at the corner bar seem uncouth in one of those places where they put an extra fork in front of you.

Dinner is a perfect opportunity to try one of those freaky, upscale bottles you’ve been avoiding all these years. A Belgian lambic, an American imperial stout – these are unusual, hugely flavored beers that a Yuengling drinker might not touch with a 10-foot pole. Maybe the first time you cracked one open, it blew out your taste buds and sent you limping home to the safety of your boring macro.

But pour a glass of Stone Double Bastard – a strong ale that even the most devout hophead swallows with caution – then enjoy it with a grilled filet in a red wine shallot sauce. Both the food and the drink improve. The mouth-puckering bitterness of the beer is softened by the sweetness of the beef’s glaze, even as the spiciness of the hops brings out the meatiness of the steak.

Finding the right match is not brain surgery.

The lighter the dish, the lighter the beer. A pilsner or blonde ale goes well with seafood, a heavier stout or double bock complements beef or Mexican. (There’s a great cheat sheet from beer writer Stan Hieronymous in “The Beer Guide by RateBeer.com,” to be released next week by Savory House Press.)

Experiment a bit. At their best, beer and the food complement each other so well, as Milwaukee chef Sanford D’Amato told me, “You come up with a third flavor where the sum is greater than its parts.”

Here are some beer and food experts’ suggestions for combos that do just that:

Sanford D’Amato, chef, Coquette Café, Milwaukee: St. Amaud French Country Ale with smoked, oven-dried tomato and chevre tart with fresh thyme.

“This beer has a rich, deep red, ripe fruitiness with anise licorice hints that is quite delicious, but a bit heavy and cloying with some foods. With the tart, the smoked tomatoes swallowed up a good part of the sweetness of the beer, standing right up to it, and the combination of the slightly bitter smokiness of the tomatoes and the goat cheese’s acidity brought out a mid-range of delicious flavors in the beer that were barely detectable before. The beer tasted much spicier and the tart’s flavors were brought together. For my taste, each made the other better.”

Adam Glickman, chef, Monk’s Café, Center City: Duvel with mussels and fries.

“Moules frites, that’s the master of all combos. All fish and Duvel go really well together. You’re taking the fruity characteristics and the light hops of the Duvel and matching them with the sweetness of the mussels. It brings out a great balance in flavor.”

Stephen Beaumont, author and co-owner, beerbistro, Toronto: Cochonnette and pate de foie gras.

“In its sweetness, the Cochonnette has a sauterne-like affinity to the foie gras, but the beer’s spiciness adds an extra dimension to the pairing. In a sense, then, it’s both complement [the richness of the foie with the luxurious sweetness of the beer] and contrast [the spice of the beer with the denser, fatty flavors of the foie].”

Lucy Saunders, author of the upcoming “Best of American Beer & Food” (Brewers Publications): Brewery Creek Ebony Porter and espresso-rubbed grilled rib-eye steak with horseradish cream and corn pudding.

“A deliciously super-dark, malty porter with a tangy hop note that extended all the way through the bite of the horseradish and roasty flavor of the espresso rub. The sweetness of the corn pudding offset the bitterness of the ale… just an amazing combination.”

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