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Food pairing: It’s not just for wine and beer anymore

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David Holub/DGO; images via Adobe Stock
Ar 170509975
David Holub/DGO; images via Adobe Stock

When you think of pairing a beverage with your meal, what’s the first thing that pops into your head? I’ll bet most of you thought of wine, and the rest of you thought craft beer, both robust, sundry, and enjoyable choices. However, limiting yourself to two pairing-beverages will close the door to a myriad of other palate-pleasing combinations.

I have been educating myself about pairing beer with food for the past five years or so, working closely with the brewers and certified cicerones at Steamworks Brewing Co. The cicerone certification program is akin to becoming a sommelier for wine, and incorporates flavor pairing in their intermediate and advanced levels. During this time, I’ve learned a lot about the tenets of flavor pairing, and wanted to venture out into other beverages.

To begin, it’s important to know that 80 percent of the flavors our brain registers come from our sense of smell. The other 20 percent is attributed to taste and mouthfeel. So, if you have a sinus condition, or lost your sense of smell in a bizarre gardening accident, food and drink pairing may not be for you.

Pairing basicsThere are a few ways you can go about this process. The first is to find similar flavors in the drinks as you do in the food. A Belgian Witbier, which is brewed with coriander, pairs well with food prepared with the same spice. The second is to find something that contrasts with the dish. Foods with a lot of fat could be paired with a tangy white wine. The wine will cut through those fats, saving your palate from being overwhelmed so that every bite tastes like the first. The third, and most challenging and rewarding pairing is executed by creating the “third flavor.” The “third flavor” is a unique, harmonious taste that is not found in either item by itself, but only when the two come together. When done right, you won’t be able to put your finger on what that “third flavor” is; all you’ll know is that it’s divine. My favorite example of this is carrot cake with an IPA.

Now that we have you up to speed, let’s ditch the vino and the suds, and explore the multitude other options out there.

CocktailsI had my first experience with food and cocktail pairing while working for El Moro Spirits & Tavern. After I shot and edited a couple of pairing videos for their social media accounts featuring beer or wine, Assistant General Manager Lucas Hess suggested we try one with a cocktail. I was skeptical at first, and then, I had an epiphany.

Cocktails are actually easier to pair with food than any other beverage. Why? Because you can control every aspect of the flavor profile. Mixology, especially the meticulous kind practiced at El Moro, allows for a drink to be built from the foundation up with the flavors and aromas of the chosen dish in mind. There are a ton of crazy flavors you can match by simple trial and error that will truly dazzle your taste buds. If you want to try this at home, though, start simple. For example, if you’re making yourself some lemon chicken, have it with a Moscow Mule. The light poultry and lemon will go very well with the ginger beer.

CoffeeCoffee has less diversity in taste than cocktails, beer, or even wine, but that doesn’t mean it can’t set your taste buds ablaze when paired with the right foods. Most pastries go very well with coffee as many of you know from your early morning exploits, but that’s not all. A light, bright Breakfast Blend and piece of rich cheesecake make a great team. Lighter coffees are higher in acidity, and can cut through the rich fats in the cheesecake, as mentioned earlier.

Coffee companions are not limited to just pastries and desserts. You can even pair coffee with dinner entrees. The next time you find yourself eating scallops wrapped in bacon, try a really dark and bold coffee with it. The “third flavor” experience will blow your mind!

Don’t stop thereTry some green tea with a melon medley, or some chocolate milk with avocado slices. You can even get some interesting combinations with soft drinks. I am embarrassed to say, but I was privy to the exciting world of soft drink pairing a few years back. Who provided this utter pinnacle of piquancy? Burger King. I went in after a night of terrible decisions, dead set on making another. I ordered my combo meal and headed to the soda fountain. Lo and behold, they had decals on them telling you which sodas paired with which “food” items. I didn’t want to take it seriously, but it turns out, chicken fries and Sprite are a match made in heaven. The possibilities are endless and you may run into some speed bumps along the way. Bad pairings akin to toothpaste and orange juice will no doubt occur, but it’s a small price to pay for the times that you truly find that “third flavor.” If you need a point of reference, start with one of my favorites, “Craft Beer & Food Pairing Guide” from CraftBeer.com.

My advice is the same I got from one of my relatives when I headed off to college: “Explore ... and experiment.”

Sean Moriarty managed and bartended for Steamworks Brewing Co. for nearly a decade. He is now a local digital marketing strategist for BCI Media who loves his wife, beer, and Batman very dearly.

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David Holub/DGO; images via Adobe Stock