A Case for Beer
By Chef Stephanie Michalak, Turner Farm Culinary Manager
My past lives as a bartender and server and my current career as a chef have helped me to become an avid people-watcher. While it’s certainly fascinating just to watch how people interact in various socially settings, my interest started by understanding how pivotal eating and drinking (either together or alone) both define and connect us as humans. I appreciate the ability to read people in any given situation to help create dishes and dining experiences that will enhance the moment any diner is experiencing as well as hopefully on the off-chance of helping someone gain some sort of new perspective, whether it be on food or life.
Over the years, I’ve found this to be significantly more impactful when either beer or wine was included in the equation—it is a social lubricant after all. This by no means indicates that you, or anyone else, has to pound back a few to feel its influence (and please, from a perspective of an establishment with a liquor license, we’d prefer if you didn’t get drunk). However, beer, wine, or even spirits have notoriously created discourse between diners as well as in perhaps a more sober, academic setting.
Perhaps you didn’t know there are scholars out there adamantly advocating the notion that beer may just be a presiding factor as to why humans took up an agrarian lifestyle and abandoned many of our nomadic ways. Now, I know you’re probably thinking, beer did that—well, plant domestication of the Fertile Crescent included wheat and barley (both used, and still used, in brewing). It can be argued that either beer or bread may have been the crux to creating ancient societies stemming from this area of the world. This is a very euro-centric perspective, but in the same time frame, rice and millet were being cultivated in China (both also used in brewing throughout many cultures). Either way, it’s fair to say that for as long as humans have chosen to domesticate crops, we have tried to utilize them in as many ways as possible.
As cultures form and change throughout time (and still are to this day!), habits and rituals have included both food and varying styles of beer. From my perspective, it only makes sense that there are classic food and beer pairings that have lasted the test of time. I know many out there consider wine to be the ultimate drink to pair with food and I myself am a firm believer that if a wine is done well and it is paired with care, then one would be a fool to not enjoy the experience. However, I would like for you to consider what Garrett Oliver, the brew master of Brooklyn Brewery, author of multiple beer-centric books, and world-traveler wrote in The Oxford Companion to Beer:
“(F)ood pairing is one of traditional beer’s greatest talents and one of the keys to its growing popularity. Once widely thought of as a great accompaniment to food, beer ceded the dinner table for decades as a pilsner-based monoculture took over in many countries. The renaissance of traditional brewing and the rise of craft brewing have recently brought much attention to beer’s versatility with food (368).”
With that being said, it certainly makes sense why many of us do not consider beer a formidable candidate to wine when it comes to food pairings, especially those who instantaneously associate beers like Pabst Blue Ribbon, or Miller Lite, to what defines beer. As a side note, I’m not knocking big (i.e. macro) beers because let’s face it: there’s a time and a place for them. Regardless, the larger American culture has formed and changed due to historical influences of other cultures, laws, and economy, just to name a few. Our beer culture is no different.
Lager beers have a long history in this young country of ours, and we like taking concepts and adopting them as our own. Honestly, the craft beer revolution of the past 30-ish years is in no way dissimilar. Many homebrewers and brewers first start with mimicking other cultures’ beers. Notoriously, English Pale Ales in the past few decades. Brewers take the brews and flip them on their head. We make them bigger, bolder, and more inherently American. We use American strains of barley, hops, wild yeast in our own climates, or other adjuncts like corn. This has been a wonderfully beautiful progression for newer styles like American Pale Ales, American IPAs, California Common, or Cream Ale to name a few. Other times, brewers go wild and end up with catastrophes. I will never forget a haunting chili lime stout that I once tried years ago. I can still feel the grit and imbalance of flavors in my mouth whenever I recall that moment. Brewing is an art and a science, which from an American perspective makes it inherently something to play with and somehow perfect.
One thing I’ve internalized from living abroad and traveling is that United States is a very young country, but the American mentality has always allotted for big ideas and a want to make our own claim-to-fames. Some of which have been positive and some we probably would prefer to forget, but nonetheless it’s a part of who we are as a nation. The reason I’m even saying this is to relate it back to beer. We’ve absolutely have made our impact on brewing and beer as a beverage. However, we still have a lot to do in terms of developing how beer fits within dining.
Some restaurants, pubs, and breweries across the nation individually work on how to intertwine beer into enjoying a meal through their beers, menus, and staff training. This is a great step, but what is still struggling to make headway is the perspective majority that consumers have on beer. Perhaps it just takes more places offering kick-ass pairings that allow people to have their own ah-ha moment. Perhaps it takes a larger, societal shift in understanding the ‘place’ (or places) of beer. I don’t personally have the answer, but it’s something I find enthralling and enjoyable to be a part of because it is so entwined in who we are as a species.
To learn more about Chef Stephanie’s affinity for beer, check out her Beer Styles + Food Pairings class on June 2.