Saturday, October 30, 2010

Virgil's theory of beer and food

If you've ever talked to Andy Borbely (manager of Seven Saints) about the main four countries for brewing, he'd have told you that there are four major brewing countries, and that they bring four different things to the table, I do agree with most of his points, but I take them in a different way.

1. Germany. To Andy, it's the area that brings us "seasonal drinking" and rigid standardization. The most prominent example, is Oktoberfest beers around the harvest time. Another example is Dopplebocks for the Lenten season. To me, Germany brings us lagers. Most every German beer style (short of Hefeweizens) are lagers.

2. England. Andy says they are important because of discovery and development of beer styles. To me, England brings us ales. Almost every (traditional) English style of beer is an ale. They go from stouts, to pales, to bitters, to milds.

3. Belgium. Andy and me both agree that Belgium brings us beer that has a strong yeast profile (think Trappists). Additionally, they give us styles of beer that are tart, spicy, and aged for a real long time.

4. USA (USA USA USA) Andy says we in America take from all those other countries and make it BIGGER and BETTER (although better is a relative philosophy; but it's kind of true), and that we aren't bound to tradition. I agree, and share his reason for throwing USA on the list. We didn't invent IPA's, but we make them really really good (get some from Russian River). We didn't invent Imperial Stouts, but try Three Floyds Dark Lord compared to a UK made Imperial Stout, and see which you like better.

There are other countries with up and coming brewing influences (and they had beer all along) but they are either importing their beer preferences (like Mexico's German Influence) or Brewdog (Scotland) taking the American route and making the BIGGEST.

There are good beers all over the world, and they all got there for specific reasons. What those reasons are, isn't because those countries started out to have those reasons. They got there for bizarre reasons.

Yeast is one of the most important components in beer. If you don't have yeast, you can't make any alcohol. The yeast is what separates the ales, lagers, and wild yeast beers. The yeast imparts flavors. Yeast is (or was) magical. Yeast availability helped in the process of defining what beers come from an area, but (in my opinion) yeast wasn't the major component of that definition.

To me, the thing that really drove the (traditional) beers that were drank in an area are the (traditional) foods.

If you ever read a book on pairing food with beer, (like the Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food) you'll see him talking about trips to various countries, and how well the beer goes with the food. If you clicked on the link to the book on Amazon, you can click on the "click to look inside" go to the first pages, and start reading. He talks about traditional beers, with traditional foods.

Did those traditional beer and food pairings come about by accident? Hell no. Certain countries make certain beers, to go with certain foods. It can't be that much of an accident. The food in a country has to drive the beer in the country.

Go to a traditional German restaurant. Order a plate of food, it doesn't really matter what. Eat it with a bock. Try some sausages with an Oktoberfest. Eat a piece of German chocolate cake with a schwarzbier (or a berlinerweis). Get some schnitzel with a maibock. It's hard to make a mistake if you match a traditional German meal, with any traditional German beers (unless you have a desert beer with your meal, but even then it won't be too bad). If you are willing to waste your money, try it again with a Miller Lite. See which works better.

Go to a traditional English restaurant. I'm not going to say... ok I will say it... but the brits aren't really known for the tastiness of their foods. If you think of the English, you probably think: Doctor Who, Monty Python, the Queen, bad teeth, and bland food.

If you read the book excerpt, you saw Garrett Oliver discover flavor in beer while in England. That's easy to do, if you compare it to the mass produced American beer. But, honestly, traditional British beer is kind of ... meh. Go to a local better beer beverage shop. Get some traditional British beer, don't get anything from them that says "Imperial". Don't get the major beers that you are accustomed to, (Sam Smith, Newcastle, Guinness (it's Irish))... heck, get them. Drink them. Think about beers that are made by American breweries that are the same style. Which beer is more flavorful? Which beer seems to be bland? Is it ... meh? Which came first? meh food, or meh beer?

Ok, so you say the British invented IPA's. When did this happen? Doesn't matter what IPA story you believe, the IPA didn't come about until AFTER there was an established trade route between India and Britain. What came back to the UK from India? cotton, silk, dye, tea, opium... and spices. Does any bland beer go with spicy food (forget what you've been taught that a light beer goes with spicy food, it's wrong)? No, but a really hoppy beer will cut through spicy flavors. To me, the IPA is a perfect example of a beer that was developed specifically to go with a style of food (Anglicized Indian food).

When you think of Belgian food, what do you conjure up? Other than Belgian waffles. Do you think cheese, frites (fries), mussels, chocolates? Or did you just stop at Belgian waffles? Do you know what style of beer is recommended for mussels? Belgian gueuze. Why would you pair an extremely tart beer with mussels? Who had this idea? Have you ever tried it? It's outstanding! Which came first, people eating shellfish, or drinking beer? What other areas are known for eating shellfish? Coastal Europe (France, Italy, Spain), a traditional beer from that area is Saison, which also goes well with shellfish.

So now we get to America. Good ol' US of A. Here, we make some really crappy, mass produced swill. It's the stuff most Americans drink. Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors, Budweiser, these are some of the best selling beers in the US. You can get it at almost every gas station here. But what's right down the street, on every block? McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut. We have crappy mass produced food, and crappy mass produced beer. All those places are wonders of efficiency and the process. They are perfect for each other. You wouldn't want to waste a good beer on a Big Mac, also you shouldn't want to drink a Bud Light with a good piece of meat. Oscar Meyer weiners go fine with budweiser. Don't waste your butchers time by getting good sausage and having crappy beer, get a good bock for that sausage.

So, we here have some really bad food, and really bad beer; but we also have really good food, and really good beer. A bad restaurant will have a bad beer selection. A good restaurant should have a good beer and wine selection. There's a reason that the Olive Garden doesn't have an extensive beer list.

Even in Champaign Urbana, think of the restaurants with the best beer selections: Crane Alley, Radio Maria, Seven Saints, even Jupiters at the Crossing (I'm leaving out the wine places); what do they have in common? Those are places where you can get some really good food. (Some people may disagree with the food lists, but it's debatable). Their food is creative and not your everyday restaurant fare. Even the pizza at Jupiters is more creative than what you'll find at Pizza Hut.

Chain food, gets chain beer. Creative food, gets creative beer. Yes, you can find some crappy beer at creative restaurants, but why would you ruin the dining experience. If you don't know better than to get Budweiser, you probably won't like the dining options at those places.

The one glaring with Virgil's theory of beer and food, is Mexico. There is an excuse behind this. Mexico is probably best known for it's lagers (Corona). They are decent thirst quenchers, and if drank in enough volume can put out some of the fire that comes with some Mexican dishes. Except, that the style of beer was brought over by German settlers. Mexico didn't really have a strong brewing tradition before the Germans. BUT (and this is a big but), go get a bottle of Dogfish Head Theobroma. It's based on an old Aztec recipe. Theobroma is made with cocoa powder, cocoa nibs, honey chilies, and annatto. Try that with some authentic Mexican cuisine, (not tex mex from chili's). Fire-y Mexican food has recently (past 100 years) found it's match in West Coast IPAs. The beer goes so well with Mexican. Just like (I believe) IPAs were originally made to combat the new found flavor in spices brought back from India, the West Coast Pales seemed to be developed to go with the food of the region.

Good beer can stand on it's own. Good food can stand on it's own. Match the two together based on the areas they come from, and you'll have a great dining experience.

Just as good beer goes with good food, bad beer goes with the bad, and meh goes with the meh.

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