Craft brewers get in on food-pairing game
A forthcoming dinner at Woodberry Kitchen won't be like the many others the restaurant serves on a weeknight.

Sure, there will be six courses, including Snow Hill oysters, a slow-roasted ham, braised shank with potatoes and carrots.

But there will also be beer, and lots of it. That ham? It will be glazed with an American pale ale.

The dinner was organized by Flying Dog Brewery to show off its inventory. The Frederick company and other brewers say craft beer can be as compatible with fine dining as wine, and sometimes more versatile.

But for the consumer it's also a crash course on an old art: pairing food with alcohol.

This can be a tricky undertaking. Pairings that look good on paper — like when two items share a common flavor profile — can fall flat because the flavors cancel each other out.

Though Kevin Berry has been a homebrewer for six years, the Glen Burnie engineer went to a recent food-and-beer-pairing event for tips.

"I tend to try a lot of weird beer, but the food-beer pairing is still new to me," he said. "There's a lot of different ways to pair things that I hadn't tried."

At a beer dinner, each meal is paired with a corresponding beer that, ideally, will heighten each item's flavor. It's not a new concept, and in fact, they've become relatively commonplace in Maryland. During 2009's Baltimore Beer Week, there were 32 of them; last year, there were 49.

Berry's event was held in December at DuClaw Brewing Company's Arundel Mills location. It wasn't held at night, but in the morning, way before any of the mall's power walkers had even made an appearance. Yes, along with beer dinners, there are also beer breakfasts: six courses, including pancakes and crepes, each with their own sudsy pilsner glass.

By 11 a.m., the 50 guests had already had a 7.5 percent stout and a 10.5 percent dark beer called Devil's Milk.

Dave Benfield, president of the company, said planning the breakfast began two months earlier, paring down its 15 different brands to just six.

In coming up with a pairing, Benfield suggests trying flavors that play off each other rather than share a common flavor. If you pair a hoppy beer with a dessert, the sweetness might be canceled out.

The DuClaw chefs also found that some pairings that might have worked — steak with the grapefruity Venom Pale Ale — failed because the beer had too much bite. Instead, his chefs tried it with the maltier flavor of their Devil's Milk and found it to be a success.

"It gave the steak body, where with Venom it felt thin and sharp," Benfield said.

At the restaurant, DuClaw had an advantage that most home cooks don't unless they're homebrewers: tweaking the flavors in the beer during the brewing process.

For instance, at the DuClaw breakfast, the 31 Munich Dunkel was spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg that accentuated the pumpkin waffles it was paired with.

But Benfield suggested home cooks instead try playing with the flavors in their food, like the ham at Woodberry that was glazed with Flying Dog's Raging Bitch IPA.

At the DuClaw breakfast, the steak had been marinated with the intensely flavorful Devil's Milk for a day and a half beforehand to highlight that beer's flavor.