Knowing how to pair wine with food is an essential skill for any gourmand. But as beer and cocktails—and even non-alcoholic drinks—attain a level of artisanship on par with vino, and gain increasing prominence on beverage menus around Portland, familiarity with pairing those drinks with a meal is becoming equally valuable. You might spend a good 15 minutes perusing a wine list at dinner, discussing your options at length with the sommelier. But how much thought did you give before ordering that herb-heavy wheat beer or saccharine lemon drop with which you're now washing down a $35 entree?
Beer and cocktail pairings aren't so different from wine pairings, says Ryan Magarian, co-owner of Oven & Shaker restaurant and proprietor of bar consultancy Liquid Relations. "You're using a lot of the same kind of principles," he says. Magarian and some of Portland's other booze experts say pairing beer or cocktails with food, like pairing wine and food, is basically a matter of compare or contrast: you can match a dish with a drink that's similar to it, or you can match it with one that's dissimilar to it in a pleasing way. Beer and cocktails, they say, actually have an advantage over wine in this game of mix and match because they're more customizable.
"I think it's a lot easier to pair beer with food than it is with wine," says Brandon Monk, restaurant manager at Hopworks Urban Brewery. "I think it's a lot more fun, too." Monk, who is working toward certification as a cicerone (beer's equivalent to a sommelier), points out that, whereas wine is varietal, constrained by the characteristics of the type of grape it's made from, beer is as variable as brewers' creativity. "There are so many more different combinations that you can do with beer," he says. "There are [new] styles coming out daily."
Monk explains beer's flavors in terms of its four basic ingredients: malt, hops, yeast and water. Beers that contain a lot of malt, such as English brown ales, lend "roastiness," he says, so they pair well with the similar flavors of, for example, roasted meat, or the dissimilar flavors of, say, sharp cheddar. Heavily hopped brews, like India pale ales, are bitter and herbal; they can serve as a counterpoint to the sugariness of carrot cake or accentuate spicy food. (For the spice-intolerant, a mollifying malty beer would be a better choice.) Yeasty beers, such as Belgian dubbels, can be quite sweet; they go nicely, then, with the piquancy of Roquefort cheese.
For Jacob Grier, lead bartender at Metrovino, beer-food pairing comes down to not overwhelming the dish. "Especially here in the Northwest, a lot of the beers can be very hoppy," he says. "That can overpower the food." Grier recommends matching hop-heavy Northwest brews with food that can stand up to them. "I love IPA and pizza," he says. "I think that's a great pairing."
Cocktails, says Oven & Shaker's Magarian, are especially suited for pairing because they can be adjusted even as food is cooked. "Unlike pairing food and wine, where you have a chef creating something à la minute [but] pairing it with something static, you now have two artisans working together à la minute to create a kind of total flavor experience,â he says.
Grier notes, though, that cocktail-food pairing can be harder than pairing with beer or wine because the concentrated flavors of cocktails—especially "spirit-forward," or boozy, drinks—tend to dominate the palate. Sipping a cocktail with a high alcohol content, like a Manhattan? You need an equally strong dish, like a hamburger, Grier says. Pair more subtle foods with lower-alcohol, aperitif-style drinks, such as a sherry cocktail, or with "long" drinks made less stiff with soda. The carbonation will have the added benefit of cleansing your palate.
But above all, he says, listen to your gut. "If you like what you're drinking and you like what you're eating, you'll be happy," Grier says.
Magarian seconds: "Trust yourself. I tell people, 'does a bonded rye whiskey Manhattan sound like it's gonna work with sashimi?' Of course not. It's not rocket science."