Crafting a Beer Dinner, Tips from Julia Herz of Brewers Association

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Up until just a few years ago, wine was the obvious liquid pairing to any meal when dining out. Now with craft beer sweeping the nation, wine and food is no longer a monogamous couple, particularly in Denver, which undoubtedly owns its title as the “Napa Valley of Beer.”

Wynkoop Brewing Company, which opened in 1988, was Denver’s first brewpub, introducing the city to the idea of pairing small-batch brews with quality pub fare. The brewery, started by current governor John Hickenlooper, has since become an institution in Denver and has served as an example to brewpubs that opened in its wake, like Breckenridge Brewery (1992) and Great Divide (1994) that has always made a point to include suggested food pairings on each beer bottle.

The success of Wynkoop was a catalyst in the revival of downtown, laying the groundwork for the ensuing explosion in Denver’s restaurant scene. While certain LoDo establishments that opened in the 90s have stuck around, like the newly revamped Jax Fish House, the foodie trend didn’t seem to take off until the turn of the century when Chef Jennifer Jasinski opened her first venture, Rioja in 2004, leading to a boom in the number of modern, trendy, foodie-type locales. But still, wine was the predominant pairing libation at the time.

Malt, hops, yeast, and water, however, would soon be giving the fermented crushed grapes of yore a run for their money. Denver’s first Belgian beer hall, The Cheeky Monk, opened in 2007, followed by Freshcraft in 2010, and a few months later, Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen, a tavern created by none other than Chef Jennifer Jasinski. Up until recently, Ryan Conklin, one of the only Certified Cicerones in the state, spearheaded Euclid’s liquor program, making this restaurant a haven for craft beer aficionados and foodies alike.

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Pairing at GABF 2012, Credit: Sean Buchan

Outside of the boom in number of restaurants offering robust craft beers lists, the Great American Beer Festival, which Charlie Papazian and the Brewer’s Association introduced to Denver in 1984 (GABF originated in Boulder in 1982), brought attention to the previously unrealized versatility of flavors in beer – those that macro brews were and are still lacking.

As the festival has grown – expect to be searching Craigslist this year for tickets – the GABF committee has made an effort in the last decade to add more food elements to the lineup of events. Now not only is there a pairing luncheon for media, but a more extensive food pavilion so that the public can enjoy pairings other than those that America was founded on: Beer and pizza, beer and hot dogs, you get the idea.

Julia Herz, Brewers Association Craft Beer Program Director (Photo courtesy: AHA)

Julia Herz, Brewers Association Craft Beer Program Director (Photo courtesy: AHA)

Julia Herz, the craft beer program director at the Brewers Association in Boulder, is a maven on what goes into a winning pairing and aids in crafting the GABF media luncheon each year, among other pairing events throughout the state and around the country.

Gaining such vast insight into pairing craft beer with gourmet food did not come easy. Herz says it took her years to be able to succinctly verbalize the key elements of beer pairing – see Eight Tips to Help You Pair Like a Pro, a step-by-step guideline to food and beer pairings originally published in The New Brewer and then on CraftBeer.com.

“I had always, just as a foodie and lover of food and drink, tried to do my best to get to know beer and wine without a lot of knowledge; I was a scotch drinker,” says Herz. “I had a revelation during testing on beer pairing: How can you know how to pair if you don’t have reference to what you’re doing in the first place?”

Upon joining the Brewers Association in 2007, she was thrown into a position that demanded the ability to identify complimentary flavors and aromas. Now, after plenty of experimentation and admittedly, some flops, Herz has honed her palate and now seeks to teach what she’s learned through her interactions with food elements.

When she isn’t busy traveling to the James Beard House or most recently the Nomad in Gramercy, New York to host high-stakes beer dinners, she invites her friends over for a palate trip. “It’s not a dinner, not even a meal at all really, it’s a plate of food with strategic food elements,” says Herz.

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Tasty Charcuterie at Freshcraft, Credit: Sean Buchan

The plate typically consists of what Herz calls strategic elements to take people’s palates on a ride: sliced dill pickle, salami, a mild cheese like mozzarella, a piquant blue cheese, caramelized onions, and spicy Tabasco mustard on toast. She then has her guests dive in, experimenting with different combinations to determine the “highways to heaven” (two complimentary strategic elements) or “train wrecks” (two clashing strategic elements).

Conducting a pairing in this way provides a frame of reference for picking out complimentary flavors and avoiding flavors that result in a bitter beer face.

We asked Julia Herz to share some of her secrets to crafting a beer dinner and identifying complimentary elements.

When choosing beer pairings, how does body come into play? How about alcohol?

Body and mouth-feel go hand-in-hand. I use the milk scale for body: Skim, 2%, and whole. When it comes to pairing, matching intensity is a common trick I’ve learned; you don’t want to put a dense big-bodied, highly robust Imperial stout (whole milk) with something lighter on the food component scale, like an iceberg lettuce salad with blue cheese. There is fat in the dressing, but not enough to stand up to the heavy components of alcohol and viscosity. You need an equal range in body for both the food and craft beer.

How do you decide what flavors to focus on within a beer and how do you use those flavors to your advantage when crafting a dish?

It tends to be easier for me to pick what beers I want to serve first then plug in the food later, keeping in mind all the elements of the beer. Always start with the lowest alcohol and work up to the heaviest alcohol level. The ethanol in alcohol opens the pores on your tongue, so a beer high in alcohol renders your tongue more susceptible to spice – with spicy food, go for a lighter beer. Get a 5% Vienna Lager, a 7-10% Doppel Bock, a 12% wine, and maybe a spirit, and pair with a spicy Thai dish or Tobasco horseradish mustard – your palate will kick quick, but the lower alcohol beer will fare the best. The sweetness of the Doppel Bock or one of the wines may fare well, but the Vienna lager will be a home run in terms of finishing medium dry with much lower alcohol.

How do you cater to a wide audience and make dishes that are approachable to people of many tastes?

As our beer culture has advanced so has our food. We now have gluten-free or vegetarian diets to consider. The broadest ranges of tastes are important to keep in mind. Everyone has different ways of perceiving what they tasted and everyone has different levels of how they perceive. The more you tune into what you’re tasting, the more advanced you’ll be compared to someone who has never been to a beer dinner. You can’t assume everyone tastes the same – you must keep in mind the different levels of experience and abilities to taste, some people have more or less taste buds physically. Finding a common language and common ground is key.

In 5-course or more beer dinner, how do you create a flow between dishes, especially if they are extremely different?

Beer dinners are a palate trip in themselves and palate fatigue is a real thing we discuss in tastings – I get this after 8oz of beer. Your palate becomes blind so you won’t perceive tastes clearly. The sense of flow is the same as any other meal, take the beverages into account and what they will introduce to the meal, I prefer two beers per course. Where beer schools wine in pairings is the carbonation – it has an enlightening effect. Your tongue is getting scrubbed with CO2, giving you a fresh bite every time. The flow is easier with beer than wine when pairing multiple beverages and dishes. Again, lighter to heavier alcohol beers is common practice.

How do you address issues of portion size to avoid palate fatigue?

Portion size is very important to keep in mind. I don’t like gluttony; overindulgence has it’s place when celebrating or during holidays. Serious effort and time goes into a paring and it’s going to take stamina, so you don’t want to blow people out of the water so they can’t make dessert. Control is good if you want your guests to have longevity through to the end.

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Savor the Flavor: Smaller tasters keep festival goers safe without sacrificing the experience, Credit: Sean Buchan

 

At the Brewmaster’s Dinner during the Vail Big Beers, Belgians, and Barleywines Festival in January, one of the people at my table said, “Long gone are the days of the one hour beer dinner.” Are beer dinners becoming longer on purpose?

Beer dinners are meant to be social affairs, especially with a higher priced ticket – these dinners have extended time invested in them. It’s meant to be a leisurely, easy, taken-care-of weekend; everyone is staying at the hotel, so why not hang out and have a great time? Beer dinners with driving should definitely keep in mind “Savor the flavor,” meaning you can go to the dinner and be fine to drive because the amount you drink is less. An important part of beer dinners is taking into account if guests are staying and if so, make it a memory, one of those dinners that people will talk about for years. If driving is involved, still make it a memory but a memory about how you took into account smaller portions and still presented them eloquently and tastefully.

When organizing a beer dinner, what is the most important thing to keep in mind?

Have fun! This is a moment of indulgence of food and drink that, frankly, many people can’t experience. If you have the means to do this in your home, be appreciative and set that vibe to your guests, be blessed to present a meal like this. You’re supporting small businesses too. It’s never an unspecial time when you’re at a beer dinner.

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Tasty dessert pairing, Credit: Sean Buchan

 

What is a pairing that knocked your socks off and still sticks in your mind today?

It all has to do with the journey when you’re learning. We were test tasting an arsenal of beers against a potential menu for the GABF media luncheon years ago and we weren’t finding anything to match with a graham cracker desert with chocolate, and seared and puffed marshmallow. There were so many sweet, dense elements that worked so well in harmony already, what beverage could be inserted to compliment or take it to a higher level? Finally, I went to the densest, richest craft beer in my cooler, Avery’s Reverend, and I didn’t get it at the time because I had no experience drinking quads. I dialed in and it was such a home run: The alcohol matched the sweetness of the marshmallow, the graham cracker almost had components of the malt in the quad, and the torched marshmallow gave a sense of caramelization that matched the Belgian candy sugars. The quad had several elements that contrasted against the chocolate, but it was a good contrast. I then got the intensity piece of pairing: Match intensity and you’re there.

About Sarah Haughey


Editor, Denver off the Wagon. Sarah is a native of the "Napa Valley of beer," but her beer-drinking roots stretch all the way back to the Emerald Isle where Haughey (Haw-hee) is famous. Sure, our name may have got it's rap from the corrupt prime minister, but we like to think it stands strong due to our long-standing ability to pound a few too many pints. After stints on the East Coast and in San Francisco, Sarah came running back to Denver where her full-time job is exploring all the city's new craft breweries one sip at a time. Follow me @sarahhaughey4 to see where I'm grabbing a beer or for news about local breweries. Like to cook? Me too, check out: Lifewithalittlespice.com