Rich Higgins was among the world’s first Master Cicerones (today, there are only nine) and has brewed professionally for nearly 10 years, most recently at Social Kitchen in San Francisco. As a restaurant consultant, he constructs thoughtful beer lists; as an educator, he guides eager palates to better beer understanding. Now, he’s the brewmaster at San Francisco’s Citizen Fox, a soon-to-open culinary compound with a vegan restaurant, ice cream parlor, coffee shop and, of course, brewery. There he’ll mentor a paid brewing apprentice and teach beer classes to beginners and geeks alike. We got a sneak peek of what’s to come when he schooled us on the basics of beer and food pairing:
“To demystify pairing, I explain that beer is a bunch of flavors in liquid format. We do pairings all of the time, like when we cook food and match other foods with it. If you imagine beer as a sauce, like a vinaigrette or a caramel sauce or ketchup, you can easily start to build pairings.
The only rule you have to follow: Match intensity. If you have delicate food and intense beer,you’re going to lose the food. As long as they’re equal in intensity, they’ll speak the same language.
Harmony is a great thing to strive for, but you can also have contrast instead. I’d describe contrast as an antidote: If you have this one food and ate it all day, you would get sick of that food, so what would be the antidote? Would it be a squeeze of lemon juice or some salt or some caramel? That’s where the beer can come in. The beer can add that extra tick to enliven the palate and wake up the food.
You can also cut food’s richness with beer: It’s more of a physical thing where the acidity and carbonation can sweep through and reset your palate. If you have a big chunk of cheese or a buttery braised mushroom cap with layers of flavor like umami and fat, a beer with acidity can slice through that.
I absolutely adore kölsch with sushi. Sushi is so delicate and nuanced, so you don’t want something with too much impact that can wreck the balance. Kölsch is delicate with its own nuance, but has enough going on to actually provide some excellent complementary notes to that sushi. Rice has subtle seasonings like vinegar, so a kölsch is an excellent choice with its hint of fruitiness.
Sour beers are so good with food, but they are also really fun to cook with. One of my favorite techniques is to use it in place of wine in an herb beurre blanc. Traditionally, you reduce white wine with shallots or garlic, and then add a bunch of butter. You can do the same thing with any sour beer; it’s all going to work. A dark sour will be like an herb beurre rouge with red wine. You can use a fruited sour like a framboise; all of those flavors are going to match with butter, shallots and garlic and form a delicious vinaigrette that’s a certain part acidity and a certain part fat. You can add it to a salad or try it on fish or chicken.
For dessert recently, I paired a bourbon barrel-aged barleywine with a chocolate chip cookie. The beer’s so decadent, served in these fancy goblets, and it’s fun to pair it with something simple, a great comfort food. The idea is a great contrast, but the pairing itself is all about harmony: putting the sweet chocolate cookie with the rich caramel, coconut and vanilla flavors from the bourbon barrel.
People love double IPAs, and usually think of them going with rich, spicy or herbal food. I’ve found they’re really killer with some citrusy ice creams and sorbets. If you’ve got a 22-ounce bottle you didn’t finish with your main course, try it with a blood orange sorbet. Dogfish Head 120 has a lot of malt, with some honey flavors and citrusy hops that go so well with Three Twins Lemon Cookie Ice Cream. It’s an incredible lemon-vanilla ice cream, like cookies and cream but with a lemony cookie, and it’s to die for with the beer’s rich malts and citrusy hops.
Hops are something you need to consider when cooking with beer: They have two things, that hop flavor and aroma that’s delicious, but also a lot of bitterness. When you reduce a beer you’re concentrating the bitterness, so if you’re going to cook with IPAs, it’s best not to reduce them. You can use them for marinades or even a mustard. Just throw it in a blender with mustard seeds, vinegar and salt.”