There's nothing like a big, greasy slice of pizza and a frothy glass of American amber ale. And those hot wings sure do play nicely with that crisp and vivacious pale ale. Fifty pounds of fresh citrus take an already bold IPA to the next level, and short ribs have never been so seductive after a three-hour braise in an espresso-fueled porter.
Beer and food have a long-standing relationship — one that's stood the test of time, through the good, the bad, and the ugly — a romance that's gripped the hearts of Charlestonians ever-so-tightly in recent years.
In just seven years, the number of breweries here has tripled, the number of craft beer bars and bottle shops are on the rise, and homebrew stores are starting to sprout up once again. And it's not just the locals that are noticing.
"We're in Charleston because the local market celebrates craft beer," says Sean Lilly Wilson, founder and owner of Fullsteam Brewery out of Durham, N.C. Fullsteam follows a plow-to-pint motto. "There's nothing more satisfying than buying local and supporting a guy with 300 pawpaw trees. It's not because it's a trend. It' because it's the right thing to do."
Wilson makes it a point to ensure that his beer gets brewed with the best local and regional ingredients, and he feels restaurants should do the same. In Charleston, you'll see Fullsteam on tap at the Grocery, Husk, Coleman Public House, and the Granary — all places that support local and regional farms, purveyors, and craft beer.
More and more local establishments and breweries are emphasizing the importance of the relationship between beer and food whether it's through pairings, brewing with food, or cooking with beer. While some people think of beer as a vehicle for refreshment, an open mind with a little thought about what you're drinking can go a long way.
Let's get this out of the way: everyone has a different palate and there's no one pairing that works for everyone, but there are basic principles that can turn a good meal into a stellar meal. It all starts with the nose. Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and author of The Brewmaster's Table, says, "Harmonizing aromatics between the beer and the food is one of the guiding principles of matching."
Flavor begins with aroma — sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Don't be afraid to stick your nose in a glass of beer, twirl it around, and let your sense of smell take control. Right away you'll be able to rule out certain pairings. For example, big notes of toffee and chocolate will overwhelm a simple spring salad, and a beer with a light floral bouquet won't stand up to a rack of lamb with demi-glace.
The smell will lead you in the right direction, but flavor will seal the deal. A general rule of thumb is to pair delicate dishes with delicate beers and bold foods with assertive beers. With brews, intensity may come from a myriad of qualities: hoppy bitterness, booziness, sweetness, richness, or roastiness. For food, intensity comes from spiciness, sweetness, richness, and cooking method, such as roasting or frying. Roasted malt flavors fare well with smoked meats and rich desserts, while bold citrus hops will elevate a spicy Indian curry.
And while contrast usually works — think strawberries with Westbrook's decadent Mexican Cake Imperial Stout — flavors that complement one another are usually the way to go. Michael Scognamiglio, owner and executive chef at Bacco, doesn't like to pair opposing tastes, saying, "In Italian cooking, there should be steady flow."
A prime example is a pairing he did with an oyster stout, Perla ai Porci, from Del Borgo, and crespelli, an Italian pancake filled with lightly braised Mepkin Abbey oyster mushrooms and local oysters, topped with a light béchamel and a fried oyster. The stout was light bodied and provided a pleasing balance in salinity to the oysters.
Over at the Grocery (4 Cannon St. Downtown. 843-302-8825), the effervescent COAST Kolsch is a happy choice for the delicately smoky-sweet, wood-roasted carrots, while the succulent Asian-style ribs at Coleman Public House cozy up nicely to a burly Westbrook IPA.
Just remember, the key here is balance. You want the food and beer to carry on a romantic conversation, not engage in a shouting match.
Beer can enhance a dish in an exciting way. Follow the same principles as pairing to match a beer to the dish. For instance, a brown ale would add a nice roasty note to a pot of beef chili. At the Granary, Executive Chef Brannon Florie uses beer in at least three of his current dishes. "I originally tried making our clams with a brown ale, but it was too bitter." Now, he's using Westbrook White Thai, a wheat beer brewed with ginger and lemongrass, which nicely enhances the briny clams.
Beers used in cooking also change with the seasons. Florie says he uses Palmetto Espresso Porter for braising a few dishes right now, but that'll change once it warms up. The bold porter adds a lot of flavor and depth to the short ribs, but that dish will be too heavy during the warmer months.
Our favorite use of beer in a recipe might be the pretzels at Bay Street Biergarten. Executive Chef Jason Walker has mastered the Bavarian dough knot with a recipe that calls for half a cup of good German lager. And as if pretzels don't already go hand-in-hand with beer, the beer cheese sauce takes it over-the-top.
Technically, beer is food since it's a good source of nutrients, but it's evident that brewers are using more than just water, grain, hops, and yeast to elevate the overall drinking experience. Take the 50 pounds of citrus added to the super hopped-up Westbrook Citrus Ninja Exchange, a bold fruit forward beer brewed in collaboration with the Charleston Beer Exchange. Frothy Beard Brewing substitutes fresh ginger for a hop addition in the Zingbier Pale Ale, giving it modest sweet and spicy flavor.
But it's not always citrus or spice that supplements the hops and malt. At Holy City Brewing, Chris Brown added 40 pounds of bacon to a porter to create a chocolate-covered bacon lover's dream, the Notorious P.I.G.
Evil Twin Brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergø took the Imperial Biscotti Break (a porter brewed with coffee, vanilla, and almonds, brewed at Westbrook Brewing in Mt. Pleasant) to a whole different level by adding over 900 Glazed Gourmet doughnuts to the brite tank. Can you say sugar high?
Ultimately, when food and beer come together in an inspired marriage, we find ourselves experiencing a magical moment that we'll always remember.
Sean Lilly Wilson from Fullsteam vividly remembers one such pairing. "We were fortunate enough to be part of a preview launch event with Oxford American magazine at McCrady's back in 2010. They made a pluff mud dessert with peanuts, chocolate, vanilla, and caramel to serve with the Hogwash Porter, in which we house-smoke North Carolina six-row barley over hickory wood. The dessert and the beer were both great on their own, but paired together, it was unbelievable. It's a pairing that I'll never forget." That's what you'd call a match made in heaven.