Craft-beer kitchen

CN&R throws down a beer/food pairing challenge

Sweet pineapple tamale with Stillwater Cellar Door saison.

Sweet pineapple tamale with Stillwater Cellar Door saison.

photo by jason cassidy

Three craft-beer purveyors, two surprise food dishes and one shot to make the perfect pairing! There’s a good reason that sounds like the opening line for a Food Network-style reality show. It’s because being the host of a foodie show on which you just talk to people who serve good beer about what beers to pair with what foods—while eating the food and drinking the beer, of course—would be a pretty sweet gig. So, if you’re reading, Food Network, consider this my pitch:

Last week, I picked up a dozen tamales from Saturday farmers’-market regulars Rico’s Tamales—six pork and six sweet pineapple—then delivered them to three Chico craft-beer hotspots—The Handle Bar, Winchester Goose and Spike’s Bottle Shop—and asked them to pair a beer with each dish for me to try.

Why tamales? First, I wanted to feature a local food, and in Chico there are at least three excellent options for tamales (Rico’s, Maria’s Gone Tamales, Tamale Tango). Tamales are also a versatile enough dish to be suited to both cold- and hot-weather eating, and, like beer, they’re made up of only a few ingredients (all of which need to come together perfectly) that nonetheless offer interesting flavors, textures and smells intermingling in one package. In other words, I felt tamales offered an opportunity for a wide range of interpretations for pairings, and my experts all proved up to the challenge.

First up was The Handle Bar. Co-owner Brian Kanabrocki and one of his bartenders, Brandon Frankel, met me at the east-side watering hole, and after tucking into Rico’s earthy pork tamale they agreed on a bottle of Storm King Stout, from Victory Brewing Co., for the first pairing. Kanabrocki said part of the reason for choosing the imperial stout to go along with the fairly mild-flavored tamale was “the potential for amplification,” and I was frankly stunned at how perfectly that intention played out. Spices that were once subtle in the tamale were drawn out by the distinct chocolate/cocoa flavor of the beer. An outstanding combination.

For the sweet, slightly buttery pineapple tamale (with raisins), The Handle Bar surprised me with something I wouldn’t have pegged as a dessert beer—a bottle of Mikkeller Dream Pils. But, as Kanabrocki suggested, the dryness of the effervescent pilsner with a mildly grassy hop flavor kind of “pulls the sweetness out of the pineapple.” And it was lovely.

An hour after dropping off the tamale samples at Winchester Goose, I returned to the downtown bar to find co-owner Rob Rasner and his staff had completed a thorough testing of possible pairings, and he slid their two choices—both on draft—across the bar.

For the pork tamale, the Goose paired the copper-colored House IPA from Berryessa Brewing Co. out of Winters. It’s a big-tasting, but very balanced beer that did one of the things that hoppy beers do best, and what Rasner intended: “It cuts the fat. It really helps it shine through.”

And with the dessert choice, the Goose went weird: the Cellar Door saison (brewed with white sage) from Stillwater Artisanal Ales. “It seemed to cut the sweetness and add to it in a strange way,” Rasner explained. And that’s exactly what it did, creating a complex dessert that also featured a nice pairing between the tamale’s tropical pineapple and the overripe banana character of Stillwater’s funky saison yeast. Weird and wonderful.

When I delivered Spike’s dish, the dessert tamales weren’t ready yet, so I was only able to ask them for a recommendation on the pork. When I returned a couple hours later, owner Kevin Jaradah and his employee Josh Neel had picked out a bold choice for me to take home—Citrus Mistress, an IPA brewed with grapefruit peel, from Hop Valley Brewing.

And, I have to say I was a little worried about such a hoppy beer with added citrus zest just wiping all trace of the tamale off my palate. And I was right. The beer is a great hop-heavy IPA, but it was a little overwhelming at first. But … I added some of Rico’s medium-hot salsa to my second bite and took another drink … [makes ridiculous mind-is-exploding hand gesture]. Holy cow! I would have thought that the piling on of so many strong flavors—the peppery, smoky salsa and the tongue-blasting profile of the double IPA—would be too much, but it turns out that all that hop-and-citrus flavor is best served by other big flavors, and the salsa’s grilled peppers were the ideal foil.

In this case, it was the food highlighting the beer. Nice work.