Until a week ago, I had only two experiences with beer. One: As a teen, I rinsed my hair with my dad's Heineken. Two: This summer, at a food festival in Washington, D.C., it was blistering hot and the only cold drink was beer. A chef friend persuaded me to have some mixed with lemon soda. He called it "shandy," and I felt as though the lemon soda was being punished.
I admit to not liking the smell of beer, and I had never tried it before then. I have, however, had my share of questions like, "You are from India and you have never had a Kingfisher?" and the follow-up, "Then what did you drink in college?" Rum and Coke, OK?
As I stared at yet another invitation to Oktoberfest this year, instead of ignoring the invite, I decided to learn something about beer before I went. I also wanted to know how to pair beer and food.
My guide was Greg Engert, beer director for the D.C.-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Engert was pursuing a degree in English literature at Georgetown University when his passion for beer won out and he instead started teaching people how to drink. This year Food & Wine named him one of its "Sommeliers of the Year," its first time ever for a beer professional. Who better to help me understand what I had been missing and find out, once and for all, if I would like to drink beer?
I arrived with friends at ChurchKey, on 14th Street in D.C., where Engert serves more than 500 beers (without a Bud Light or Coors in sight), ready to learn. He was waiting with beers and with foods that paired well with them. After a warm welcome, he animatedly explained the history of beer and the methods used in creating beer. Essentially, it involves cooking grains, then fermenting them with sugar. He looked and sounded like a college professor as he explained that the way the grains are handled, the way they're cooked, will help define the taste of the beer.
"Grains that are lightly kilned will have a toasty flavor and dark golden to light amber hue. Those stewed and kilned at higher heat will taste of caramel and result in amber to light brown brew. Grains heated at even higher temperatures will be brown to black and showcase roasted flavors," he explains. Then hops are added as a bittering agent to counteract all the sugar and other seasonings.
When pairing food with beer, he said, always pair like intensity with like intensity. For instance, a char-grilled dish will go well with a beer whose grain has been cooked in the same way.
Proteins and produce that are boiled pair nicely with very light beers, straw to golden in color. When proteins and produce are grilled, they go well with the darkest brews.
Roasted foods pair well with beers having dark golden to light amber hues. Amber to light brown brews exuding caramelized notes are perfect with foods that are fried, sauteed or braised.
OK, I was with him so far.
"Here is the first beer you are going to taste," he said, giving me a beautiful glass filled with an amber-hued, crystal clear beverage. It looked like beer I have seen friends drinking, but had an aroma that was so different -- and it wasn't ice cold. "Most common beers are sold ice cold just to satisfy the urge to drink something cold," he said. Most are kept at 37 degrees, he says, so they have no aroma but they do have plenty of carbonation. This beer is all about the tempting aromas and sweetness, and is kept at 42 degrees. "I call these my 'transitional beers' -- beers for those who love wine and so will appreciate the complexities in the aromas and taste," he said. "Also, women taste bitterness more than men, and this is a sweeter beer."
My friends around the table agreed. "I never think of what Bud tastes like," said one. "I just think, 'I want a cold beer.' " I took a sip. I had nothing with which to compare the taste, but this was crisp, clean, like a chilly fall morning. This was beer? Really? I could get used to this.
"That was clear since it's made with barley. The next one is a bit cloudy because it uses wheat," Engert said, handing me another that smelled rather sweet and was darker in color. My education continued as he explained that because of low alcohol content and high carbonation, beers pair well with spicy foods. And then came the biggest surprise. He had me taste an Italian beer prepared in the Belgian tradition of adding spices, with flavors of coriander and orange peel. It was fruity, sweet, spicy. Wheat never tasted so good.
Even in my beer trance, I thought to ask why beer is especially popular now. "We are going toward simpler cooking in most kitchens, and beer is very easy to match with simple foods. So, for instance, if you are eating a salad, you can match a light, crisp beer with it. If you are cooking lamb or scallops, you can match a nice fruit beer with more deep caramel tastes," Engert said. Because beer is a "cooked" beverage, you learn a little bit about how your beer was made, how the grain was cooked, and match that to how your food is cooked. "You can do this with beer, but not with wine, since grapes are not cooked to make wine," he said. He also pointed out that beer is cheaper, more accessible and less intimidating.
My last taste for the day was a beer that had been prepared with apricot wine. It was simply divine. Clearly, I have wasted a lot of years since I turned legal drinking age.
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