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Move Over Wine

A pint of saison, a crock of mussels, and a plate of beet salad at Blue Monk.

There's a new pairing favorite in town

Fall is here, and with the changing leaves come football, Oktoberfest, and autumn-inspired meals. With the abundance of farmer’s markets around the city, now is the best time to pick up some local squash and seasonal vegetables, exchanging light summer salads for hearty fall stews. Cauliflower, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes are only a few of the myriad of harvest options currently available at your neighborhood farm stand.

In addition to local produce, local brews are now gaining steam. Buffalo has seen a craft beer renaissance in the last few years. In a city where locally-sourced pints were once scarce, the options are now overwhelming. Breweries have started popping up across the city, and many restaurants serve Buffalo-brewed beer as part of their roster of permanent offerings. If you haven’t picked a favorite beer yet or are stuck on a familiar go-to, now is the time to start experimenting. Heavier autumn beers, such as amber ales, pumpkin ales, IPAs, porters, and stouts offer a wide range of flavor profiles and can satisfy every type of beer drinker.

Though beer is not only good for sipping. While wine pairings have long been popular in higher-end restaurants, beer pairings have started to appear on menus as well. In fact, some restaurants have even taken part in a battle of beer vs. wine pairing competitions, questioning the tradition of wine pairing altogether. Blue Monk on Elmwood has committed to coupling each of its menu items with one of their 32 rotating draughts. Like wine, beer can enhance the flavor of a meal when paired correctly.

Beer pairings can be used to amplify home-cooked meals as well. Pumpkin ales perfectly complement the sweetness of butternut squash and pumpkin. Witte beer can intensify the soft flavor of cauliflower. Porters, stouts, and other dark beers are best served alongside red meats and are even useful for braising.

If you choose to cook with beer, stay away from hoppier varieties; cooking the hops creates an unpleasant, bitter note that can ruin the dish. “I’m a big proponent of pairing with beer over cooking with beer,” says Chef Tony Martina of Blue Monk. “Cooking with beer is particularly difficult at times. If there’s a hop undertone in that beer, you’re going to cook it, and those flavors are going to be pronounced at the end.” Experimenting with beer, whether cooking or pairing, is the key to creating delicious, sometimes unexpected, results. The only advice Chef Tony offers is that “you have to take a step back and think about flavors.”

Blue Monk’s ever-changing cheese plate, with selections from local favorite Nickel City Cheese & Merchantile, benefits from an accompanying beer flight. Picking from a sampling of beers allows customers to decide which flavor combinations they prefer. “For a long time, everyone has always thought ‘wine and cheese, wine and cheese’, but the monks that have been making beer from the beginning also make cheese, so [pairing them] makes sense”, says Chef Tony. “You get a one of a kind cheese and a one of a kind beer, and when you put them together, it’s an experience.”

Ethan Cox, a certified Cicerone and the president of Community Beer Works, also knows a thing or two about beer pairings.

The Cicerone certification process requires knowledge not only about beer types and the brewing method, but also about beer pairings and the service side of the industry. “There’s a really wide range of good pairings for beer and food,” says Cox, “One that’s really classic and easy but just really rocks it is pizza with a Vienna lager. The caramel sweetness offsets the acidity of the tomato sauce. You can play with the toppings on the pizza to really align the flavors.” Along with pizza and tomato sauces, roasted meats and vegetables popular during the colder months also benefit from the caramel undertones and malt flavor of lagers, brown ales, and porters.

Because beer is so complex, there are often multiple underlying flavors that can be leveraged to boost flavors across many dishes. “With beer, you have the luxury that I don’t think you have with wine, with setting up both contrasting and complementary alignments,” Cox notes. Harnessing these elements can improve and change the flavors of everyday foods. From there, the possibilities are endless.

If you are feeling adventurous, experimentation is encouraged. Even if a particular combination doesn’t work the first time, trying new beers and new groupings can prove successful. Start by purchasing small amounts of many different kinds of beer, either in four packs or fewer, and try a sip with dinner. Be sure to take advantage of make-your-own six packs found in grocery stores for optimal exposure to different beers.

If you are at a complete loss as to which beer to pair with which food, have no fear. There’s one thing that Ethan and Tony both agree on: saisons go with everything. When in doubt, stick with a saison. Both herbaceous and light, saisons have the benefit of complementing many flavor profiles and will please even the most reluctant beer drinker.

The best thing about beer is that it comes in all kinds of flavors: dark, light, fruity, bitter, hoppy, malty, and even sour. “There’s a beer out there for everyone,” says Chef Tony. “The realm of options is limitless. There’s a thousand, even millions of flavor combinations.” At the end of the day, beer pairings are all about having fun and enjoying good food and drink. With that, you really can’t go wrong.

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