Beer, by itself, is a great thing, right? But recently the art of pairing beer and food has seized the kitchen and, working with a friend, I recently set out to write a book about it. Our premise: No longer is wine the sole companion of good food. Beer must have a seat at the table. Why? How does it work? For starters, beer’s ingredients make it super versatile. Barley malt, roasted from pale gold to pitch black, can lend fruitiness, sweetness, bready flavors, even notes of coffee, chocolate, and soy-like umami. Hops provide bitterness and aromas (from pine tree to orange peel) that are a major part of the beer’s overall flavor. Yeasts add spice, aromas, aftertastes, acids, and of course help create the alcohol left behind during fermentation. Carbonation and grain tannins help “scrub” the palate. Take almost any food, and there’s a beer style that can match it. Baby back ribs with burnt orange glaze, anyone? How about buttermilk-fried oysters and kriek-braised pork sliders?
Both of those delicious recipes came out of our project. It goes back a bit. True story: in 2013 I got invited to attend IACP for the first time, a culinary festival food & drink journalists around the world attend with all the enthusiasm of Big Ten tailgaters. That year, at the behest of Portland buddy and renowned cheese expert Steve Jones, I was appearing in a truly ridiculous beer-vs-wine-with-cheese smackdown against the wily David Lynch, the famed former Babbo sommelier who now runs St. Vincent, a no-good, run-down, two-bit, flea-bitten flophouse in SF.
I’m kidding, of course. St. Vincent is amazing. It’s a world-class wine bar/gastropub/beer bar and he runs it with utter class, no surprise from the James Beard-winning author of Vino Italiano. Anyway, the three of us, who had never met up as a group, decided Jones would “referee” as Lynch and I debated wearing Mexican lucha libre wrestling masks, because it would A) be stupid, silly fun B) confound/amuse the august international food and wine critics and C) see reasons A) and B). Why not?
During the event, before the packed hotel ballroom, I had Lynch on the ropes early on with some world-class saison and IPA, but as is his way, he slowly warmed up with a feint and dodge and bob and weave—and damn it! really great wines!—until they were becoming putty in his hands. Not even my final pairing of a massive creamy bleu cheese with Firestone Walker’s amazing, bourbon barrel-aged Sucaba, a haymaker if there ever was one, could save me. When I uttered what some in the increasingly tipsy crowd perceived as a Mad Men spoiler (that a recent episode, which had not yet run Down Under, took place in Hawaii) I was donezo. Kaput. Crawl back to Oregon, you hayseed!
All in good fun. I lost by two crummy votes, with a final score of like 252 to 248, a five round smackdown. Jones, wearing his ringmaster bowtie, raised Lynch’s wimpy wine pairing arm aloft… and the crowd roared. Well, they laughed and clapped for a while. We had managed not to embarrass ourselves too completely.
All’s fair in love and wine-versus-beer-pairing, and we’re all still good friends. More importantly, there were two important people in the audience that day: Bill LeBlond, the esteemed cookbooks editor of Chronicle Books in SF, and Andrea Slonecker, an up-and-c0ming, Portland-based, super-talented cookbook author. I’d met Andrea a couple of times at food events in PDX; she approached after the final bell and introduced me to Bill. Still wearing my ridiculous white satin robe with the word BEER in faux-gangsta gothic font on the back I composed myself and chatted with the two of them. “That was great… What about a book with you two?” LeBlond wondered aloud after a few minutes of small talk. Andrea and I glanced at each other, our eyes wide and saying, silently, Holy cow, yes!
“He never goes to anything,” Slonecker later told me, referring to LeBlond’s high stature in the food world. What luck!
That day, the seed for Beer Bites was well planted, and after we put together a hefty proposal and shopped the book back to LeBlond and Chronicle, we had a ourselves a book deal. We would write a cookbook about beer pairing together, with Andrea doing her delicious food, and me trying to impress her picky palate—and complement her delicious food—with beers from around the world she’d mostly never tried. We scored a test kitchen in the form of a friend’s condo in Portland and spent weeks and weeks cooking and tasting beer and taking notes morning ’til night. Let me tell you this: Andrea is a terrific cook and her recipes rock. And best of all, early on, she set me up on a group date with her roommate at the time, who is now my fiancé, Lila. Meant to be, you might say!
Two years later, that cook book is now on shelves. On 10/13/15, Chronicle released BEER BITES: Tasty Recipes and Perfect Pairings for Beer Lovers, with a foreword by Eric Asimov, chief wine critic of the New York Times (and a heartfelt thanks to Lila, who was a huge help for both of us).
We are really proud of this book and hope you’ll check it out if you love beer, cooking and entertaining, or, barring those, lucha libre and true love. We have some signings and other events coming up as well: a reading at Powell’s Books on Burnside, in downtown Portland, on Monday, November 9th at 7:30PM, as well as some events to-be-announced at McMinnville’s 3rd Street Books, The Commons Brewery, Baerlic Brewing, and others TBA. Check out our Beer Bites Facebook page, and pick up the book from your favorite independent bookstore, Chronicle Books, Powell’s, Amazon, Barnes & Noble. Cheers!