Pairing beer and food is part of what can make craft beer fun.  It can be tricky to get right, but when you do, it is a wonderful flavour experience.  Most often when people start pairing craft beers with food, they start with more intensely flavoured beers – which, of course, require more intensely flavoured food with which to pair.  However, what about less intensely flavoured food.

Today, we are looking at two food pairings starting with less intensely flavoured food.  We will be pairing sushi with Kirin – tasting Kirin from a can.  Secondly, we will be pairing Delirium Tremens with a soft cheese called Mont D’Or.

Complexity and Intensity –

Before we start looking at some guidelines for food pairing, it is worth considering two words used to describe craft beer (and food) that are sometimes misunderstood.  Often people use the words ‘complex’ and ‘intense’ interchangeably when it comes to describing flavours.  However, they mean different things.

Complex refers to there being lots of different flavours present in a beer.  When describing something with complex flavours, it requires lots of different words.  If, for example, a fruity beer is complex, it might taste of apple, pear, green grape, cantaloupe melon, banana, watermelon, apricot – and potentially many more different types of fruits.  These flavours may all combine into a single flavour, which somebody might simply describe as fruity, or different fruit flavours might reveal themselves with each tasting of the beer.  The ability to identify all of these different individual flavours is quite tricky – the taster needs to have a clear picture in their mind as to what ‘apple’ or ‘green grape’ tastes like, and then they need to be able to isolate this flavour in the beer.  Likewise, this complex fruity beer might also have sweet notes in it – which in turn could come through as malteser, honey, honeycomb and candi sugar.  It could also have spicy or herbal notes in it – which could come through as clove, nutmeg, white pepper, coriander, rocket lettuce, or potentially many other herb/spice flavours.  If a beer is one-dimensional, then it cannot be described as ‘complex’ no matter how flavourful it is.  The beer is a simple beer with one characteristic flavour.

Intensity refers to there being lots of a given flavour in a beer.  A spicy dish is intense if it burns your mouth.  It is complex when there are lots of different spices in the dish – and it does not have to follow that any one or all of these spices cause an intense flavour in the dish.  A fruity dish (or beer) is intense when the fruit flavour is very evident, and punches through strongly.  Again, this can be multiple fruit flavours with intense flavour in the dish (a complex, intense dish) or it can be a simple, intense fruit dish (stewed apple can taste intensely of apple, but apple and sweetness might be the simple flavours in evidence).

Our brains work to understand flavours based on our experience.  A fruit merchant would be better able to deconstruct the fruity flavours in a fruity beer, whereas a spice merchant could achieve the same for spicy flavours in the beer.  This is because of the experience of the people in question.  In order to deconstruct the flavours in a beer or dish, we need to be able to have a clear ‘map’ or ‘picture’ of the individual flavours that make up the global flavours, and then to identify those flavours.  This is not always the easiest thing to do.

However – there is good news.

When matching beer and food, it does not require that a person can deconstruct every single element of the dish and the food.  True – having this ability can make it easier to come up with ideas for pairings that are more likely to work.  However, the most enticing pairings are often the ones that one doesn’t expect to work, and they simply do.  Beer and Food Pairing is more about experimentation than strict, scientific rules.  There are guidelines which can help, but even these guidelines can often lead us away from a pairing that can be absolutely divine.  The most important thing to do is have fun, accept that there will be mistakes in pairings (sometimes, horrific, jarring flavour catastrophes!!!), but be secure in the knowledge that some pairings will work, and the reward is worth the effort.

Basic Food Pairing – Bridging and Contrasting –

Foods and beers each have their own flavour qualities.  These flavours can work together or they can jar with eachother.  When matching flavours together, there are two basic ideas that are often mentioned – bridging (or complementing) and contrasting.

Bridging involves finding similar flavours in the food as might be in the beer.  For example, sushi is fish wrapped in rice.  Rice is fundamentally a starchy carbohydrate, just like beer is made from malty barley which starts out as a starchy carbohydrate and then gets converted first to sugar and then to alcohol.  There is a commonality between the soft, almost sweet flavour of grain rice, and the sweetness that can be present in beer because the flavours start from a similar place – grains.

Contrasting involves finding flavours that are different from eachother, but work together.  There are many examples of contrast in our two food pairings.  For example, sushi with soy sauce takes on a significant amount of salt flavour from the soy.  This contrasts with the peppery quality of the noble hops used in brewing Kirin.  While salt and pepper are two contrasting flavours, they work together ‘like peas in a pod’.  Likewise, soft cheese can work very well when paired with pale fruits.  Having some slices of apple, pear or some green grapes on a plate can nicely complement a soft cheese.  It stands to reason that a beer that delivers these flavours has a strong chance of pairing well with such a cheese.  In the case of both of the examples above, one will note that I am falling back on contrasting flavours that people will have experienced in a different setting.  Where somebody has a memory of two flavours working well together, it is more likely that a pairing involving these flavours work.  Just because the pepper might be coming from beer hops and the salt might be coming from soy sauce, this does not mean that the fundamental pairing of salt and pepper will not work!

Less Intense Flavoured Food –

There is a simple guideline that most people use at the start of beer and food pairings – less intense flavours with less intense flavours, and more intense flavours with more intense flavours.  Both of the foods that we are pairing today – sushi and soft cheese – are very much on the less intense end of the spectrum.

If we think of a series of stepping stones in pairing beer and food, we can start in the centre with the idea of balance.  Where a beer pairs with a food without either beer or food becoming the centre of attention in the pairing, this pairing is balanced.  During the course of the pairing, it can happen that one or other is more prevalent in terms of flavour, but this then changes to a situation where the other comes through to assert its flavour in its own right.  In our second pairing today this can happen – the creaminess of the cheese can dominate the mouthfeel experience, and this can be cleansed away by the carbonation of the beer.  In turn, the next bite of cheese comes to the fore in mouthfeel terms again providing a creamy mouthcoating.  However, the beer and the cheese are balanced.

Moving in one direction from balance, we can find that one flavour has the effect of smoothing or subduing another.  The flavour of the food may be a little more intense by itself, and slightly less so when mixed with the beer (or vice versa).  This can be pleasant – changing the flavour experience – as long as it doesn’t go too far.  When it does, the result is ‘masking’ – one flavour is overcoming another flavour so much that it has the effect of smothering that flavour.  Appropriate balance is lost completely, and the match does not work.

We can see the same thing happening in the other direction.  One flavour can ‘boost’ a flavour in the thing with which it is paired.  So the flavour in the food might be evident but subdued when by itself, but it might come to the front when it is paired with the right beer.  This works as long as the balance does not tip too far.  When one flavour causes another flavour to be magnified too much (potentiation), then instead of ‘boosting’ the flavour it is ‘blasting’ the flavour.  An example of this happening in a negative way is the pairing of an intensely spicy dish with a very bitter beer.  By itself, the spicy dish might be quite pleasant.  However, bitterness serves to magnify spice flavour and mouthfeel in a beer, and if a beer with too great an intensity of bitter flavour is matched with a very spicy dish, the result can simply be unpalatable.

Where we are pairing less intensely flavoured foods, maintaining this balance can sometimes be more delicate.  However, as always, trial and error is our best guide – we know when a pairing does not work because it just doesn’t ‘feel’ (or taste) right.  If this happens, it doesn’t matter whether we can explain it or not – just move on to the next experiment!

Sushi and Kirin –

In pairing sushi and Kirin, we are using a simple ‘cheat’.  If Japanese beer does not pair with Japanese food, then we will find it difficult to pair anything with the beer or food.  Flavours that are appreciated in a culture develop and establish themselves over a period of time, and people experiencing these flavours will naturally pair them in the natural course of enjoying their food and drink.  Where pairings don’t work within a culture, it is likely that the beer is ‘tweaked’ by the brewer very early on so that they do.  While the country of origin of a beer is not the single biggest factor determining the flavour in the beer, it is unlikely that a Japanese beer that does not work with Japanese food staples will survive, much less succeed to become the most popular of Japanese beers.

There is a second element to pairing sushi and Kirin beer.  As mentioned above, sushi is wrapped in rice, and beer is made from grains.  This provides a natural bridge.  Given that Kirin is a pilsner, it is brewed with pale pilsner malt – and so the flavours coming from these grains are less intense than would be the case with coloured malts.  This serves to balance the pairing with the – relatively less intensely flavoured – sushi.

Beer and sushi provides an interesting pairing from the point of view of diversity of flavour in the pairing.  There are five main flavours that we can pick up on the palate, and four of them are represented in the pairing of beer and sushi.  Likewise, there are different ‘mouthfeels’ or textures that we can experience as part of flavour, and many of these are also in evidence in the pairing.

Our tongues pick up sweet, salt, sour, savoury (umami) and bitter.  Rice, beer and to a certain extent, fish, can provide sweet flavours.  Bitterness in beer is a cornerstone flavour – coming from hops – and is in evidence in Kirin, but in a subtle and not-overpowering way.  Fish provides a certain element of savoury, but dipping sushi into soy sauce boosts this savoury element significantly.  Likewise, introducing soy sauce to the sushi provides a salt dimension to the pairing.  While the beer and fish are not hugely intense in their flavour, the complexity of different flavours in the pairing is quite satisfying.

In terms of mouthfeel, again there is quite an amount of complexity.  The obvious ‘wetness’ of liquid (the beer) is self evident, but the sushi combines the texture of rice, smoothness of fish, softness of some of the other ingredients (such as, for example, avocado), and when wasabi is mixed with the soy sauce, an element of heat or spice is added to the mouthfeel experience.  Again, complex, but not necessarily intense (unless you overdo the wasabi!)

The other flavours that we experience in this pairing appear to take place in the mouth but are actually detected by flavour receptors in the nose.  Made with noble hops (which are, themselves, quite complex in their flavours), Kirin provides delicate counterpointes of pepper, spice, herb and minerally character to the pairing.  Likewise, different fish used in sushi, and different accompanying ingredients can all add to the complexity of the flavour experience.

Delirium Tremens and Mont D’Or Soft Cheese –

Our second pairing is interesting for a number of reasons.

Firstly, there are some different guidelines which can provide clues as to how intensely flavoured a beer is likely to be.  The two cornerstone guidelines are – ‘darker beers, more intense’ and ‘stronger beers, more intense’ (with the opposite also being an appropriate guideline).  While Delirium Tremens is a golden ale, and fits with the idea of ‘paler beers, less intense’, the fact that it is an 8.5% beer would suggest that it would be more intense in its flavour.  There is no lack of flavour in Delirium Tremens – it is an incredibly complex beer – but the manner in which the beer is brewed ensures that the flavours are not intense in their delivery.  It is very much a beer that is deceptive in its strength.

Two other guidelines that can guide expectations of intensity are ‘complex fermentations, more intense’ and ‘more ingredients, more intense’.  Taking the second of these first, when a beer uses lots of a given ingredient, it is more likely to be intense in its flavour.  Beer brewed with tons of hops will be more likely to have more intense flavours than beer brewed with less hops.  While Delirium Tremens does have its fair share of hops, superb balance in the beer serves to ensure that the intensity of flavour is more delicate.  Looking at our first guideline in the context of Delirium Tremens, as a Belgian beer, Delirium is brewed with a classic Belgian yeast.  While the most intense flavours in Belgian beers often result from mixed or sour fermentations (think Oude Gueuze or Rodenbach), many Belgian yeasts can result in an intensity of flavour in the beer.  However, with Delirium, the fermentation character of the beer is a complex character (many flavours) rather than an intense character (lots of one or more flavours).

Given the above, Delirium Tremens has a complexity of flavour, but its intensity is such that it pairs very well with less intensely flavoured cheese.

The Mont d’Or cheese is a seasonal cow’s milk cheese that is made in the winter/spring months.  The main element of the cheese provides buttery character, and the rind of the cheese absorbs some of the character of the pine resin into which the cheese is packed.  Overall, this is a less intense cheese than (for example) a blue cheese or a strong cheddar.

When pairing Mont d’Or and Delirium Tremens and interesting thing happens.  As a soft cheese, the Mont d’Or is particularly mouthcoating.  The carbonation of the beer serves to cleanse the palate of this mouthcoat, and the cheese in turn serves to cancel out the palate cleansing nature of the beer on the next mouthful.  In this way, the beer and cheese serve to subdue or soften the flavour of their counterpart.

A similar thing happens with the flavours in both beer and cheese.  The fruit and spice of the Delirium complements the cheese, but also serves to subdue the buttery flavour of the cheese.  The flavour of the cheese also serves to subdue the fruit and spice of the beer.  There is almost a see-saw effect happening – with the flavour of each element of the pairing coming to the fore in a step-wise fashion.

This reflects another phenomenon in flavour.  We are more likely to take note of new flavours than flavours to which we have adapted.  If one wants to take a simple, but unpleasant example of this phenomenon, think of the experience of walking into a boy’s locker room in aroma terms versus what one notices fifteen minutes later.  We tend to adapt to aromas and flavours and notice them less the more we are exposed to them.  By subduing and softening the flavour of the beer, the cheese provides us with an opportunity to experience the beer flavours afresh with our second mouthful.  The beer, in turn, returns the complement, and allows us to re-experience the flavour of the cheese again and again.  Therefore, although both are relatively less intense in their flavours, the pairing allows us to better appreciate the individual complexity of both the beer and the cheese.

Thanks to –

Yamamori Restaurants, Dublin for the sushi.

Fallon and Byrne for the cheese.

Kirin and DeHuyghe Breweries for the beers

The beer and cheese pairing was suggested by the book ‘Beer and Cheese’ written by Vinken and Van Tricht.