Pair with friends instead

Foodies take the fun out of beer with ‘vinified’ rules

Photo by 5chw4r7z (via Flickr)

For better or for worse, beer is being dragged by foodies down the same road they’ve dragged wine, turning what was once the quaff of peasants into something elite and ridiculous.

We are seeing this in bottles going for $25 each and in the pretentious notion that every beer should be consumed from its own correlating style of glass. We also see beer being “vinified” by the industry as restaurant servers, writers, brewers and cicerones tell us we must “pair” our beer with food, either by adjusting what we eat according to the beer we’re drinking, or by picking out a beer based on what’s already stewing on the stove. I have even heard mature adults in person claim that a certain pairing “failed” and did not “work.” (What does that mean? When I drop my phone in my cup of coffee, it subsequently does not work. But how does a food-drink pairing not “work”?)

While these elite tasters go on about flavor, mouthfeel and matches made in heaven (they love that phrase), the funny thing is that almost none of us care. We drink and we eat, and few people fuss about properly pairing our liquids and solids. A research group called Wine Options surveyed hundreds of consumers several years ago and found that 60 percent drank wine without food at all. Among my own friends and family, almost all of whom enjoy food, beer and wine, no one has ever, not once, called or texted ahead to see what was for dinner before buying drinks.

Fact is, pairing is not important.

Still, we are now advised to “pair” IPA with escargot, imperial stout with bacon chocolate cheesecake and, so help us, barleywine with Casa Magna Colorado Robusto cigars. There are books about pairing food to beer, and magazine articles, and every third event during major beer weeks, it seems, features some sort of beer-food gimmick—like beers matched with chocolates, cheeses, pancakes or hoagie sandwiches. That can be fun, I suppose, especially if you’re drunk—but attendees at such tastings are sometimes given the impression that to arrange the beer and food in any other order would not work.

I spoke briefly with Lagunitas founder Tony Magee about this recently. He says the beer-food pairing concept isn’t necessarily something to frown at. Lagunitas, he points out, offers beer dinners from time to time—banquets choreographed so that elaborate dishes arrive at the table alongside a prespecified Lagunitas beer, sometimes special releases or old vintages pulled from the cellar.

But Magee agrees there is potential for the beer-food business to get a little annoying and, perhaps, start to resemble some of the pretensions we encounter in the wine world.

“The vinification of beer is a little problematic sometimes,” Magee says. “It tells beer lovers that beer is not something to enjoy with your buddies but something that you need to enjoy in a certain way or else you might look foolish.”

I’ve encountered enough condescending oenophiles who drop names of obscure vintages, say that a certain wine tastes like quail blood, and incorrectly drop the “r” from pinot “noir” (that translates into walnut in French) to firmly say I will refuse to let my favorite beers slide down the slope that Magee describes.

Fancy dinners aside, even “classic” pairing protocol—like pasta with Chianti, sausage with lager, fried calamari with Greek retsina, tart Spanish cider with steak—is mostly arbitrary. Peasants in old France, Italy, Germany and Greece did not hunt the wilds for foods that “worked” with their regional beverage. No, Italian red wines are had with pasta because Italians make noodles. And northern Spanish cider is served with steak and blue cheese not because the Asturians cracked some scientific code of culinary chemistry but because they grow apple trees and cows.

I will be eating grilled herring and brown rice tonight, and I will probably drink some homebrewed IPA. I sure hope it works.