Back in January, I attended Defrost Fest at Blue Corn Brewery. It was another excellent event put on by the Southside brewpub, which turned out to be a gathering of locals and even a “who’s whom” of the Santa Fe beer industry. It was an event in grand form, featuring a lot of amazing food and a lot of quality cask beer. And for their first time running this type of brewfest in their dining space, Blue Corn did extremely well. It all went smoothly for the guests, and everyone had a great time. It was a night of beer-tasting and merrymaking, but it was also Thursday at the Brewer’s Table and that meant that Chef D was once again serving up his beer-inspired (and beer-infused) treats from Shepherd’s Pie potato skins to malted crème brûlée. Between commanding the kitchen and dishing out some of his most delicious delectables to date, I pulled Chef David Sundberg aside to find out what’s the deal with pairing beer and food.
DSBC: From a Chef’s perspective, what’s special about pairing food with a beverage, be it wine, or beer, or spirits?
Chef D: Chemically speaking, everything interacts. From more an ethereal standpoint, I think that if we stop and appreciate two things in conjunction with each other, they can lend their passions to each other. So, I, as a chef, am very passionate about what I do and my food, and I try and take the love that I have for my craft and for all the energy of the farmers and ranchers and growers and everything that it took to make that one plate of food, and I try and pour my own energy into that. I know the brewers and winemakers and distillers have that same incredible passion and the fervency for what it is they do in their craft, so one would hope that people consuming that would appreciate the two together and be able to extract some of those juices and energies.
DSBC: And so this is definitely different then just ordering a sandwich and something to wash it down.
Chef D: Yeah, like a burger and a coke, right? (laughs)
Chef D: Right. No. If it needs washing down, you’re ordering the wrong food.
DSBC: Agreed. Now, the older trend was pairing wine with food. What do you think has changed, now, to allow beer pairing to take off like it has?
Chef D: Well, I think that people are opening their minds a little bit more. In Europe, beer’s been such a part of mainstream culture for such a long time, but here in the United States, especially after Prohibition, a lot of culture was destroyed. And also, just in terms of it being acceptable to have an alcoholic beverage and not be sinful or shameful … and since people kind of came out of Prohibition, wine was really one of the first drinks that broke the mold. Breaking that mold started sometime in the Seventies, and it became a high-brow thing, because wine was expensive. Beer was more of a working man’s drink. It’s not to say that there weren’t some great beers being made, but it was mass production, and it was all about on the same level of flavor profile and such. It was meant to be refreshing and you could toss back a bunch because you had a hard day in the mines.
DSBC: And so maybe because you had such limited variation at the time, you couldn’t pair it with a whole lot of varying flavors. Or, on the other hand, that lighter lager went with everything because it didn’t have much flavor to disagree with the flavors of different foods.
Chef D: Right. But now with the mindset of people enjoying craft beer, who have been enjoying craft beer for about two decades now, they can now open up to trying and matching a flavor with a complimentary flavor like people used to do with wine. And what I love about beer is that it’s much more flexible than many wines are.
DSBC: And that leads to my next question. Why does beer pair so well with food?
Chef D: It’s just, it has more variety. With wines, one of the greatest examples that someone gave me, a wine person, actually, is lemon. Lemon is very difficult to pair a wine with. It’s so incredibly acidic and direct on the palate that a lot of times it either just completely conflicts with the wine or it covers it up entirely. Whereas beer, you could have massive amounts of variation in beer. You’d have an easier time finding something to pair without being limited. Lemons would certainly go easily with lagers, because acidity and lagers go hand and hand. They complement each other nicely.
DSBC: And in New Mexico, what about spicy foods? I’ve had some great green chile really swallow up a wine.
Chef D: And that’s exactly it, too, so IPAs, which is one of the biggest recommendations we have here as well as one of the best sellers because spicy foods and IPAs are great. A lot of IPAs have a lot of citrus. They won’t overpower each other.
DSBC: They can stand in the same ring as each other and go toe-to-toe.
Chef D: Yeah. They can dance. And you can go with something crazy like a Scotch Ale, something super malty, which is going to completely counteract that high acidity, but if you have lemon on top of a piece of very rich fish, say sea bass, the maltiness of the sea bass will play in nicely with the maltiness of the beer, but the acidity of the lemon is going to cut through them both and voila, you’re ready for another bite.
DSBC: Interesting. I’ll have to try that! Now, last time I spoke with James (Warren) and Nick (Richardson), in the interview, they told me about how Blue Corn was becoming more beer-centric. How much of Blue Corn’s menu is inspired by the beer that’s served here?
Chef D: A good portion of it, even the New Mexican food. With the latest menu change, I started integrating beer into more of the New Mexican things. For example, our carnitas are cooked in chile and beer. And it just works. It works magically, because the beer helps in the enzymes as well as the maltiness of the beer and acids in it from the Co2 help to break down the meat so well, so it turns so juicy and delicious.
DSBC: One of my favorite surprising pairs is the Gold Medal Oatmeal Stout and the Flan. It was a pairing that lent so much to each other, but I never would have tried it if I hadn’t stumbled upon on it. What surprising pairings have you found?
Chef D: Oh wow! In the dessert category, I constantly surprise people. I don’t know that I’m regularly surprised anymore, because I’ve tried a lot of different things. I still get frequently surprised about how good pairings are. One of the biggest surprises that I had was when I first started and we did a three-way pairing between food, beer, and sake. So we had a five-course dinner and each course had one beer, one sake, and one food. And the most surprising part of it was how the sake and beer paired together. People would taste each, but they would taste linearly, and so we got them to taste in a triangle. They’d go back and forth, from the sake to the beer, from the beer to the food, from the food back to the sake. It was absolutely phenomenal how different everything was depending on which direction you went.
We worked with Ayame Fukuda from Shohko Café. The brewer at the time, Brad Kraus, and I, we went over there with eight beers and Ayame had 25 sakes pulled out. And we just tasted around until we found these really magical combinations, so when we found the sake and beer combos, I created all the food off of those. That was two months of creating the recipes. It was so much fun!
DSBC: It sounds like a fun experience! Finally, where would you recommend people start (with) pairing beer and foods?
Chef D: Very simple. Start with slightly less nuanced things. Start with things you know. So if you know how to cook a good steak, start with a good steak. Try it with an IPA. Try it with a Brown Ale, even a slightly maltier Stout; I wouldn’t go too dry on it. And try it with a light lager. Having those different beers, which are vastly different styles of beer, and each one is going to go well with that steak, but in incredibly different ways. And if you want to just create a good basis, you could start with popcorn, and make four different kinds of seasoning for the popcorn. You could make caramel popcorn, chile popcorn, and cheese popcorn and straight popcorn, and pull out 6 different beers and taste all of them together. It just gives you a really good basis, a foundation for understanding what in the beer affects the food. From there, you can take those lessons and learning and continue on. But here’s the kicker. You can do anything with anything, and it’s fine. You’re still having food and beer, so it’s going to be an enjoyable experience, but to do it well is pretty cool, and so to find those things that magically match together, they can take a good dining experience to the next level and make it an amazing experience.
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I think we’re trying new beers and new flavor combinations because our palates have grown up a little just as we have, and now we’re looking for more than drinking just to get plastered and eating just to get fed (most of the time). And maybe that’s what it’s all about, expecting more out of our experience, whether drinking or dining, or both. Pairing can raise an experience from a 4 to an 8 or even a 7 to an 11. When I pair foods and beers, sometimes I get it wrong, but when I get it right, it’s an out-of-this-world experience. When we spend our hard-earned money dining out, rather than just grabbing fast-food, we want to get our money’s worth, don’t we? I do. I’m paying for more than just the food; I’m paying for a lesson, sometimes in culture, sometimes just in taste. What I’m really after is that experience that made getting out of bed and going to work just that much easier. And I’ll take a good “Wow,” any day.
For tomorrow’s Thursday at the Brewer’s Table, Blue Corn is releasing their Barley Wine. It’s a special creation of brewers James and Nick, and one I had a very small hand in brewing. Mashing-in and moral support counts, right? At 11.2-percent ABV this will be quite a big beer. Luckily, Chef D has prepared a gumbo just as big and just in time for Mardi Gras (okay, it’s a couple days late, but it’s still in season). I hope to see you all there. Don’t forget to make reservations, and laissez les bon temps rouler!