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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

“There is good living, where there is good beer.”

Since I started writing about beer, this has been my mantra—and, of course, good food is part of good living, too.

There’s more synergy between the beer and food worlds than ever before. Brewers have produced a range of delicious beers to suit nearly every kind of food. The Brewers Association reports that the number of breweries in the U.S. just passed 5,000—a record high. That means there’s a ton of beer-and-food-pairing potential! Therefore, it’s no surprise that restaurateurs are increasingly recognizing the versatility of craft beers—and their various complex favors—when it comes to food pairing.

“Dr.” Bill Sysak is respected around the world for his encyclopedic knowledge of beer styles and flavor profiles. Dr. Bill, as he’s known in the craft-beer community, is the co-founder and CEO at Wild Barrel Brewing Company and the former craft beer ambassador at Stone Brewing Co. He suggests matching strength with strength: Strong-flavored foods demand assertive beers. And for crying out loud, taste things first!

“I’ve always been a proponent whenever possible of knowing the flavor profiles of both the beer and the food, personally, versus just reading about it,” says Dr. Bill.

Grains like wild rice or polenta pair well with clean and crisp Bohemian-style pilsners or American amber lagers. The complementary grain flavors balance hops while staying light on the palate.

Love sour and funky beers? Try them with rich meats and root vegetables. Combining these flavors brings out umami.

While filet mignon is classically paired with pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon, a rich stout has the potential of bringing out flavors that one won’t taste with wine. Brown ales are also bold enough to complement roasted meat.

That said … breaking the rules is totally OK—and even encouraged! Discover what works together on your palate.

Wes Lieberher, the executive chef at Beer Belly in Los Angeles, is a rule-breaker, as well as a food and beer lover. You must try his beer-braised octopus. He’s putting his own twist on what’s popular; for example, he created a French dip with duck and duck au jus. When it comes to pairing, he tends to experiment with what’s available.

“I leave it open,” Lieberher says. “We switch our taps so much, so there’s always a different beer, so there could always be a slightly different flavor to it, which is kinda cool.”

As for breaking rules: He pairs his beer-battered fish and chips, a lighter dish, with a hoppier IPA, rather than the lighter pilsner used in the dish.

“A lot of people will say, ‘This goes with this,’” Lieberher says. “I won’t cook with an IPA, but IPAs will go great with something I’m using a lighter beer with.”

More and more, brewers, restaurateurs and chefs are using what’s available to them locally. This tends to lead to better natural pairings.

“I was one of the first major people at my level—beer-and-food pairers—to talk about regionality,” says Dr. Bill. “Back when water was bad for you, people had to have whatever (alcohol was available in the) area of the world they lived. … In the Grape Belt, they drank wine with their meals, or diluted wine for their children. In the Grain Belt, everybody drank beer or mead or cider.

“If you had to eat the same kind of food sources every day, and the only beverage you had to wash it down with made you say ‘yuck’ every time, those styles wouldn’t survive, right? You would find the styles that work well.”

Julia Herz wrote the book on beer pairing. No, really: She co-authored Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide From the Pairing Pros with Gwen Conley. Herz is the Craft Beer Program director at the Brewers Association and a certified cicerone.

“The localization movement isn’t just isolated to food,” she says. “That’s where we became aware of it—from the slow-food movement, farm to table—and now it’s farm to keg to tap! We’ve got brewers thinking like chefs.”

While beer has reclaimed its place at the dinner table in some places, many restaurants still put only wine in the spotlight. Herz believes it’s time that more of the 115,000 people in the U.S. craft-brewing community speak up with a simple request: “Dear restaurateurs: It’s time to have your menu present beer in the same manner as food and wine.”

Herz suggests trusting the waiter or beer-server if you’re at a restaurant that has a respectable-looking beer menu

“Go to establishments that hang their hat on pairings. Have them be your guide,” she says. “If they have wine pairings, it’s a good place to push them and ask them about beer pairings.”

But to repeat: The one definitive source for what beer works well with what food is your own palate. Experiment and embrace your inner anarchist.

“We all aren’t the same tasting type, and we’re not all going to perceive what we taste as the same,” Herz says. “So it’s all about the journey—experimenting and being able to articulate to yourself or to others what you did and didn’t like.”

Thankfully, people are taking her advice. As of March 2016, nearly half of craft-beer drinkers surveyed said they drink craft with food more now than they did a couple of years ago.

Make no mistake: Beer is king and should have a place at the dinner table. When combined, the sales of wine ($37.5 billion) and spirits ($69 billion estimated) in the United States barely surpass the sales of beer ($101.5 billion—$19.6 billion from small and independent U.S. craft brewers). This tells us there is unmistakable potential.

Cheers, and bon appétit!

Published in Beer

“There are 4,700 breweries in the U.S., and 10,000 wineries. There’s room to grow.” —David Walker, Firestone Walker Brewing

The craft-beer movement has reached nearly every nook and cranny of the Golden State: Some 80 percent of Californians live within five miles of a craft brewery—including the vast majority of us in the Coachella Valley, thanks to Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse, La Quinta Brewing Co. and Coachella Valley Brewing Co.

Thus, it makes perfect sense that the folks at the California Craft Brewers Association decided to brew up the California Craft Beer Summit.

The second annual three-day event recently took place in Sacramento. There are now 700 breweries in California, which provide jobs for more than 50,000 people, according to the California Craft Brewers Association. California craft beer contributed $7.29 billion to the state economy in 2015, and the summit plays a vital role in bringing together all of the players involved in the industry—from brewers to retailers, from distributors to craft-beer drinkers.

The event began on Thursday, Sept. 8, with a welcome reception. I missed it—but Sactown welcomed me just fine. America’s self-proclaimed Farm-to-Fork Capital has also proudly staked a claim as a craft-beer paradise. It would have been impossible to pay a proper visit to the region’s 45-plus breweries (with more on the way), but we were able to visit a couple while also soaking in beer knowledge at the summit. While Sacramento is obviously an important political city, the people there totally know how to have fun.

My Thursday night began at the Dive Bar. There’s a double meaning within that title that combines two of my favorite things: dive bars with great beer, and swimming. Strange, yes, but this rollicking bar features mermaid-costumed women swimming around in a giant fish tank above the bar. Seriously.

On Friday, the CCBS held educational sessions including “Bringing Malting Back to California” and “A Talk with AleSmith, Chartering Growth Over 21 Years.” Peter Zien, the CEO and owner of San Diego-based AleSmith, talked about staying true by brewing high-quality beers with passion and integrity—even when the market wasn’t quite ready for them yet back in the mid-’90s.

“You’re an artist and you’re a businessman, or -woman,” he told the audience.

In 2008, when much of the economy was suffering, Zien was ordering a brand-new brew system from China in order to “up (our) game.” AleSmith went from 1,100 barrels to just more than 4,000 that year—but it wasn’t without blood, sweat and fears. While the brew system was making its way to California on a ship, Zien feared the system would end up at the bottom of the ocean due to a grizzly typhoon that was brewing off China. Thankfully, the new brew system made it to San Diego just fine.

“It allowed me to dream,” Zien said, adding that the system helped AleSmith celebrate its most profitable year in 2013.

Long-time brewers like Zien have inspired younger brewers to dream—like Ken Anthony, of Device Brewing Co. in Sacramento, who is now making a name for himself with quality artisanal beers.

Anthony, Device’s owner and head brewer, was a structural engineer before entering the beer business, so it’s no surprise that Device uses a beautiful, custom-built 7 BBL brewhouse from Bennett Forgeworks to brew up some delicious IPAs and awesome seasonal brews.

I also got to know—and fell in love with—Berkeley-based Fieldwork Brewing Company, thanks to its beers, branding and atmosphere. The brewery makes awesome cards explaining every beer in detail, with humorous antidotes. The Salted Cucumber Farmhouse Ale is perfect for a hot day—and probably equally delicious on days that aren’t all that warm. According to the detailed card, “The addition of French sea salt keeps all taste buds on high alert, convincing you to keep chasing the cucumber.”

On Saturday, I attended the “Master Pairings: Craft and Artisanal Chocolate” session with Bill Sysak. “Dr. Bill” is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on craft beer and food pairings. His session was a wonderful way to start a day. That afternoon, the Summit Beer Festival pleased hundreds of beer-drinkers with the creations of more than 160 breweries. The lineup was arranged by region across the Capitol Mall: San Francisco Bay area, Northern California, Los Angeles, San Diego and Central California.

It was an awesome weekend that showed how truly amazing the California craft beer industry has become. Cheers to California craft!

Published in Beer