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Mission accomplished: wine guys pair beer and Chinese food

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Four wine guys haul bottles of beer to San Fran’s trendy Mission Chinese for a hands-on lesson in beer pairing.

by Luke Sykora/photos by Melissa Barnes

Pretty much the geekiest people I know who are into beer are wine people,” says Steve Sherman, who owns San Francisco’s William Cross Wine Merchant. It makes sense. After spending their time navigating the nuances of tiny vineyard parcels in Burgundy or along Germany’s Mosel River, wine professionals probably aren’t going to check their brains at the door when it comes to beer. And because wine is intricately connected to food, beer pairing inevitably becomes part of the equation.

Take Josiah Baldivino, sommelier at Michael Mina’s flagship restaurant in San Francisco’s financial district. He started exploring the complexities of beer through homebrewing. Pretty soon he was offering the occasional beer pairing amid the expected progression of wines matched with Mina’s tasting menu. He finds that, 99 percent of the time, guests are happy going with a beer pairing rather than a wine pairing.

Curious about how sommeliers and others in the wine trade think about the connections between beer and food, I invited Sherman and Baldivino to a dinner built around the question of pairing food and beer, taking advantage of the cheap beer corkage fees and challenging, fantastical dishes at Mission Chinese Food, where Anthony Myint and Daniel Bowien present seriously tweaked versions of Chinese dishes and ingredients. To keep us on track, I also invited Cicerone Sayre Piotrkowski, whose career has focused completely on beer, first at San Francisco’s pioneering Monk’s Kettle and now at the otherwise wine-centric St. Vincent.

We meet on a Sunday night, settle into our dimly lit table and start popping bottles, drinking Echigo Koshihikari lagers as we wait for the food to show up. When the first dish hits the table—chilled buckwheat noodles with green chili sauce and grated daikon—it becomes clear that this isn’t going to be a walk in the park. We’ve amassed a considerable arsenal of pairing material: a Japanese red rice ale, a Flemish sour, saison, IPA, Anchor Steam, weizenbock, Belgian tripels and abbey ales, a mass-market pilsner, even a sugary bottle of Lindemans Kriek. But the heat of the chilies and the funky note from the pickled radish doesn’t immediately gear itself toward anything on the table. The dish kills the complexity of the late-hopped, mildly bitter Dying Vines Hop Candi IPA and turns the Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale into a sweet, cloying mess.

“You want to try a train wreck?” asks Piotrkowski. He’s just tried pairing the noodles with Divine Brewing’s strong, dark, hard-to-find Teufelweizen weizenbock, and the dish has turned the normally exciting beer into a cloying brute that tastes like a cheap domestic Belgian knock-off.

In the end, we settle on Rodenbach Flemish Red as the best pairing—mostly because its tart, pungent flavors are powerful enough to stand up against the spice of the chili and radish. It still tastes like itself, and the dish makes the beer’s raspberry flavors pop.

It’s immediately apparent that the process of pairing food with beer is much more experimental than working with wine. “Wine definitely has more guidelines for me,” Sherman says, pointing out that you would never pair a steak with a Sauvignon Blanc. Working with beer, he’s more intuitive, letting the character of the individual beer spark pairing ideas.

Piotrkowski agrees, and he does toss a bone to the wine crowd: “I feel like wine is actually a better bottle to have on the table throughout the meal. Beer I actually enjoy more as a targeted pairing—that cheese with that beer.”

Baldivino has a slightly different approach. “When I taste a beer, I decide what wine it reminds me of,” he says. Beers loaded with Brettanomyces, like Rodenbach Grand Cru, remind him of the funky rusticity of a traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which immediately gets him thinking about traditional Châteauneuf pairings like lamb.

When the issue of Brettanomyces raises its head, Sherman bristles: He simply can’t stand drinking a beer that he perceives as Bretty, since overt Brett flavors are often considered to be a winemaking flaw. Rodenbach Flemish Red, fine; Rodenbach Grand Cru? No way.

When the next dish comes out—fried chicken wings coated in red chili flakes and numbing Sichuan peppercorn—I get a chance to test a theory that we quickly begin referring to as “the Riesling effect.”

In wine circles, it’s pretty much universally acknowledged that the go-to pairing for spicy Asian food is an off-dry Riesling. This is where I bring out the exuberant, over-the-top sweetness of Lindemans Kriek, hoping to hit a home run with a beer that’s not exactly nerd-approved. Unfortunately, my daring move falls flat—the sugar does cut the heat briefly, but the fire comes roaring back, and there’s not enough flavor depth in the beer to fight it.

Oddly, the beer that works best with the chicken wings is the Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux saison, suggested by Sherman. It’s surprising, because the beer is almost 10 percent alcohol, and we’re all expecting that alcohol to sear the heat of the chilies into our sinuses. Instead, the saison’s high carbonation scrubs the heat and, counterintuitively, actually refreshes us between bites of the fiery wings.

Baldivino, who was somewhat unsuccessful at selling the table on pairing the Tokyo Black porter with spicy chicken wings, finds a great use for that beer when the Sizzling Cumin Lamb arrives. The charred edges of the lamb immediately get him thinking about connecting meat caramelization with dark, roasted malts. It’s an intuitive connection that in hindsight makes perfect sense—the dish and the beer echo each other, rather than getting in each other’s way.

As more dishes arrive, Piotrkowski comments on the misconceptions he thinks sommeliers and others in the wine trade have when it comes to beer. “It’s hard-wired with wine people: What grows together, goes together,” he says. But he’s confident he can find dozens of domestic beers that would pair better with sausages than a German lager.

On that same note, he finds that sommeliers, trained rigorously to respect the viticultural traditions of Old World, tend to fetishize imports. “Ninety percent of the time, there will be a better beer close to you. It will be unpasteurized and delicious,” he says. “I believe in super-fresh, I believe in beer that’s still alive.”

The “Mouthwatering Chicken”—a dish of cold-poached chicken breast and seared chicken hearts drizzled with spicy chili oil—gives us another opportunity to test how the beers on the table interact with spice. Once again, Dupont Saison works well.

Surprisingly, so does the Hop Candi. A late-hopped IPA from Oakland’s small, new Dying Vines brewery, it’s what Piotrkowski calls a West Coast session ale. It brings a lot of hop aroma without the high alpha acids and alcohol usually associated with West Coast IPAs. “It’s an example of a hoppy beer that goes good with spicy food,” says Piotrkowski, who brought it in a swing-top from St. Vincent, where it’s on tap. “To avoid that because you’ve had your palate wrecked by too many double IPAs is a shame.” Baldivino’s particularly taken aback: “I’m skeptical about hops and heat, and with those two, it works.”

One of the best pairings of the evening also turns out to be one of the most curious. The dish: stir-fried peas and pea tendrils with pickled red onions. How often does anyone think about pairing beer with vegetables? Here, the key is the sweetness of the peas and onions. The peas cozy up to the malty sweetness of the Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale, while also bringing out the beer’s subtle underlying hoppy bite. The dish strengthens the beer’s balance, rather than throwing it off.

The last dish, a big, juicy veal rib coated in a thick layer of pan-seared, caramelized General Tso sauce, is yet another win for the Rodenbach Flemish Red, which has proven over the course of the evening to be by far the most useful and versatile beer on the table. Both the dish and the beer have an enticing sweet/sour quality. Still, I do finally score a minor win for the Lindemans Kriek. “If I was setting up a menu and this was the last course before dessert, I would go with the Kriek,” says Piotrkowski. It’s a rich, decadent pairing.

As the check arrives, Baldivino attempts to explain the kid-in-a-candy-store mentality that’s pervaded our dinner: “With wine, Champagne is the easiest to pair with food, because of the effervescence,” he says. “With beer, you’re in a fantasy world. It’s this open experiment; I feel like I’m in a lab. It’s like a ghost key; it can open several doors, not just one.”

Sherman points out a more practical difference between beer and wine that might explain our happily dazed state at the end of the meal: “Beer doesn’t taste the same when you spit it out; it makes it taste bitter. You have to drink beer to taste it.” •


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