There's nothing like a good beer to get you in the mood for a savory treat. Back in my college days, I learned that Miller High Life makes for a great pairing with a slice of greasy cheese pizza. But as my palate has become more sophisticated, and craft beer and cider continue to boom, the possibilities for pairing have become more in-depth and decadent.
Much like you'd pair red wine with steak or white wine with seafood, there are general guidelines to follow when pairing beer and cider with a meal. I've often found the idea of making my own pairings kind of daunting, so I spoke with three experts in the food and beverage industry — all of whom are hosting food pairing events during SF Beer Week and Bay Area Cider Week — for their advice.
For Bay Area Cider Week, Melissa Axelrod, chef-owner at Mockingbird in Oakland, is teaming up with Richmond's Far West Cider Co to produce a three-course dinner on January 30. In line with Mockingbird's farm-to-table sensibilities, Far West Cider uses only apples grown on their local, fourth-generation family farm. Besides sharing a philosophy regarding using locally grown produce, Axelrod said that Far West ciders are particularly good for pairing with food, which is why she regularly offers them on Mockingbird's beverage menu.
"Far West Ciders particularly are very food-friendly, almost like a sparkling wine," Axelrod said. "They're not too sweet, especially the Proper Dry, and they have a lot of nice acid in there to clean the palate."
Each course will use Far West's ciders in the dish, as well as apples from Far West's farms. Each course also will be paired with a different Far West cider. For the first course, Axelrod plans to serve a celery root and apple salad with applewood-smoked trout, herbs, and horseradish creme fraiche. She'll pair it with Far West's Orchard Blend cider; the acidity pairs well with the rich creme fraiche, while the fruitiness of the cider balances the salty trout. "The Orchard Blend isn't super sweet, but it's definitely more of a fruity apple flavor," she said.
For the main course, she'll serve pork braised in Far West cider alongside potato dumplings. "Any way you use a wine or a beer in cooking, you could use cider," Axelrod said. It'll be served with crab apples from Far West's farm and paired with their Proper Dry cider. On the dessert menu is an apple charlotte made with Far West's pink lady apples and topped with zabaglione made with cherry cider, with a pairing of the same cherry cider on the side.
Over at Tiger's Taproom in Jack London Square, owner Brian Chan is cooking up a series of SF Beer Week events that marry his passions for food and beer. He's professionally photographed beer for a number of breweries and taprooms, and he's been the organizer of SF Beer Week's East Bay Non-IPA Tap Takeover event for five years. Chan also is an expert on the local food truck scene, having photographed and written about food trucks across the Bay for the website Roaming Hunger.
For Valentine's Day, Chan is planning a special pig roast dinner on February 14 featuring Chef Aaron of East Oakland pop-up MexiQ, which combines barbecue with Mexican flavors. Tiger's Taproom will be hosting guest brewery Ambitious Ales from Long Beach, which recently won a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival for its blonde coffee ale called Central Perk.
February 15 is Chan's famous East Bay Non-IPA Tap Takeover event, and they'll be serving DC-style barbecue from DCQue Oakland. "Barbecue goes well with beer," Chan said. He tends to favor lighter beers like pilsners or a kolsch, though saisons and IPAs can work well, too.
Following the tap takeover, Chan is teaming up with food truck La Santa Torta for a special brunch on February 16. Since he knew he'd have a lot of lighter beers on tap, he asked the guys at La Santa Torta to make ceviche, which he thought would pair well with lighter beers.
"A good sour would go really well with it, or a good dry cider, or something light — again, like a lager or a pilsner," Chan said. "You don't want to drown out the taste of the ceviche."
La Santa Torta also will be serving their famous crispy red quesabirria tacos, which for the uninitiated, are stuffed with Jalisco-style stewed beef and melted Oaxaca cheese. For this brunch, they'll be making a special version of their birria with beer. La Santa Torta also regularly pops up for dinner on Tuesdays at Tigers Taproom, and Chan can confirm that it pairs great with a pilsner, like the Propaganda Pilsner from Berryessa Brewing.
"I had a small pour of a pilsner and I had a couple of their tacos, and it was amazing," Chan said.
If you'd like to experiment with food and beer pairings under expert guidance, head to Rosamunde in Old Oakland for one of their many SF Beer Week events that feature food. The first in the series is a four-course dinner featuring chef Maria Smith. The dinner was created starting with four different beers in mind: a Geisterzug gose with rhubarb from Freigeist Brewing, the Local Honey pilsner from Woods Brewing, the Kurofune porter from Baird Brewing in Japan, and the Beer Geek Vanilla Shake oatmeal stout from Mikkeller Brewing.
From there, they devised the courses: a soft pretzel stick with a warm German cheese ball, a citrus salad, a Korean barbecue pork shoulder, and for dessert, chocolate pavé. The dishes are intended to be paired with beers in the same order listed — the gose with the appetizer, the pilsner with the salad, the porter with the pork, and the oatmeal stout with dessert. But all four beers will be served with each course, allowing the diner to mix and match the different pairings and discover new combinations.
"I can tell you 'Oh, this beer goes with this,' but you may have a different opinion of that," said owner Josh Margolis. Same goes for their Valentine's Day dessert pairing on February 14, which will feature creamy, fruity, chocolatey, and salty desserts along with a flight of four beers.
Along with beer, Rosamunde is known for their sausage. One of their most exciting sausage and beer events of the year, Weird and Wild, takes place on February 15. Rosamunde will be offering four of their most unusual sausages: a rattlesnake and rabbit sausage, wild elk andouille, pheasant sausage, and wild boar sausage. They'll be pairing them with three different beers and a mead, all brewed with wild or exotic yeast strains.
Margolis described the flavor of the rattlesnake and rabbit sausage as "something between chicken and pork with a little bit of a gamier flavor."
"It's super delicious — it doesn't necessarily taste like you're eating something from the floor of the forest," he added. "Something like a sour or a gose would be really great to pair it with."
Meanwhile, he recommends trying the elk andouille with Garden Path Fermentation's wild hoppy ale, Old School the New, which is reminiscent of an IPA. Scratch Brewing's Lemon Balm Sour, on the other hand, would pair well with the wild boar or pheasant sausages.
"Sour ales are best for sipping and not having giant glasses of, but they're really great for pairing with food," Margolis said.
While you could stick with just one sausage and one beer, you can also order flights of both sausage and beer and come up with your own favorite pairings. And why not? You'll be able to try more beer — and food — and you might even discover a new favorite.
"I think it's [really] important to push yourself out of your comfort zone and taste lots of styles of beers, especially now that the sky is the limit with styles," Margolis said. "It's just amazing what is coming out of the breweries now. It's allowing us to really do these pairings and get more detailed with them than we ever have before — but ultimately, it's about what you like."