Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Chew on this: Beer goes better than wine with food

Put down that corkscrew. You'll get more versatility with a carefully chosen beer to go with your dinner.

Patrick Beach

How do you feel about food?

I like it a lot. I spend even more time thinking about it than I do beer. Those two subjects pretty much command every waking moment. And, if I'm planning on having beer with dinner, as I do on many — OK, most ... OK pretty much every — night, I contemplate what beer or beers it will be.

Beer has a vastly greater range of flavors than wine. It just does. Therefore it should, and does, go better with a wider variety of dishes and cuisines than wine.

Who are you going to believe, me or Garrett Oliver? Oliver, he of Brooklyn Brewery and author of the canonical "The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food," is a world-renowned authority on beer and wine and food. He says there's no comparison and regularly hosts food pairings with both beer and wine facing off, deliberately salting the crowd with wine-centric types. At last count, when it comes time to vote which overall went better, beer always won. Beer's carbonation cleanses the palate, and the variety of beers versus red or white makes for no contest. (Although if I'm having a steak, I'll probably go for a big cabernet. Some things just can't be beat.)

So why the lingering bias? Because until roughly 30 or so years ago, there wasn't much good beer in this country. In more recent times, chefs and sommeliers graduated from programs and curricula designed and written by people who lived under such oppressive conditions (think "the Gulag Archipelago") and trained their youthful wards to ignore beer in favor of wine. You can't blame them, but it's time to send a mixed case of great American craft beer over to the faculty lounge at the Culinary Institute of America.

Remember — beer is food. Think such divine combinations as pizza and beer, backyard burgers and beer and beer-cheese soup. Stout has long been paired with oysters, and a few brewers such as Harpoon actually make beer with oysters in the beer. Oysters and stout go especially well if the beer is carbonated with nitrogen, which smooths out the bordering-on-burned character of the dark malt.

Let's not stop there. Thai, Mexican or Indian cuisine? An India pale ale will go toe to toe with the heat in those cuisines. Brown ales, too. The malty sweetness is a great contrast. Vienna lagers go swell with seafood, depending on how the dish is prepared. Use common sense: A Vienna lager would faint if put next to, say, a piece of blackened redfish. Vienna lager or pils is a good bet with creamy soups such as lobster bisque, although if the bisque is lightened with a bit of sherry I might try a Weizenbier (made with at least 50 percent wheat malt) or another wheat beer with lots of banana and clove notes from the yeast.

Barbecue? Can't go wrong with a big IPA such as Green Flash's, a double IPA like Hercules or a or black IPA such as Hop in the Dark from Deschutes. But why not a smoked porter?

I love Russian imperial stouts such as North Coast's Old Rasputin with bold blue cheese. Those same stouts, or a respectable espresso stout, will make you hoot with joy when paired with dark chocolate desserts.

Brewers love to have beer dinners so that fans can check out how the brand's portfolio pairs with different dishes, which poses interesting challenges and opportunities for chefs. Jack Allen's Kitchen out by the Y in Oak Hill recently had a St. Arnold dinner with brewery founder Brock Wagner. And the Alamo Lake Creek has similar events regularly. Here's some advice from Paul Michie, their former concept chef who worked "40 or 50" beer (and wine) dinners and is now studying at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin:

"The best advice is keep your food in order and keep your beer in order."

By which he means start light with, say, salad or appetizer, then work up to the brawny stuff.

"It's just like wine," Michie says. "You don't start with cabernet."

And does Michie think about what beer he'll be having with dinner? Quite the opposite.

"I go by the Whip In and see what the coolest new beer is, and then I go to the grocery store and cook around it," he says. "I design stuff around beer and not the other way around."

Brewers think about food pairings, too. Beside me is a bomber bottle of Great Divide's 16th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA, which the label says goes great with "bacon and blue cheese hamburger, barbecue ribs, Point Reyes blue cheese, sticky toffee pudding, caramel cheesecake." In a few hours, I'll see how it gets along with the chicken satay skewers with peanut sauce I have marinating and plan to grill.

Think seasonal, too. If you're having a warming winter dinner, like braised lamb shanks, beef short ribs or beef burgundy, a sweet double bock will make you quite content. For Thanksgiving turkey, think Oktoberfest — one on the lighter side of the maltiness continuum, because Thanksgiving tends to be a monstrous meal — or a harvest ale. Save the pumpkin ale for pie; too many of these beers are out of whack with an excess of nutmeg, clove and other spices, which I find to be tongue-numbing.

Don't wed yourself to the notion of having a beer from the same country as your dish or cuisine. (And don't be thrown by India pale ale, which is not from India.) If you're sitting down to a plate of haggis, well, first of all I'm very sorry. Second, just because you are doesn't mean you have to go looking for a wee heavy or other Scottish ale. Moreover, one of the many hangovers for which we can thank the age of empire is the plethora of poorly made, largely tasteless light lagers in far-flung former colonial outposts such as Vietnam and India.

For dessert? Tart, fruity desserts will thank you for pouring a similarly tart and fruity lambic next to them.

We haven't even talked in detail about Belgians and it's time to start grilling those skewers. What's your favorite food and beer pairing? Stroll on over to the Liquid Austin blog on Austin360.com, post a comment and let's keep the discussion going. I've got to pop a cap and light the grill — two of my favorite things.

pbeach@statesman; 445-3603