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   When the Right
   Wine Is a Beer
   By Mark Bittman

  It's not that Garrett Oliver doesn't like wine. In fact, he knows more about it than most people, enjoys it often with food, even sings its praises. It's just that he thinks there are times when beer does a better job.

  "To me," said Mr. Oliver, the brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, "beer and wine are both beverages meant to be served with food. And good beer, real beer, often offers things that most wine does not, like carbonation and caramelized and roasted flavors — aspects that sometimes make beer the preferable choice.

  "And the most wonderful thing about beer is that it has that ability to `reset' your palate. Take cassoulet, for example: Rustic southern French reds are good, but French beer is a much better choice. Cassoulet can be like cement, but beer busts it up and makes it seem so much lighter."

  Though wine snobs might disagree with him, I understood Mr. Oliver's points when we spoke on the phone. It's certainly true that on those occasions I had consumed enough wine to cut through a cassoulet, I had fallen under the table. And I knew that Mr. Oliver, who is also author of the comprehensive "Brewmaster's Table" (Ecco, $29.95), had done wildly successful beer-and-food pairings around the world.

  But the beer-pairing mentality was beyond me. When I want a beer, with or without food, I just order the best-sounding one; I cannot say that I've ever thought which beer would go better with the meal.

  So I journeyed to Mr. Oliver's renovated carriage house in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, where we cooked together. Really, he cooked; I chopped and took notes. He then paired the various dishes with beer.

  We chose preparations that would be challenging pairings for wine — like pasta with lobster and chorizo, and very spicy crab cakes — and some that even an amateur would be able to team readily with wine, like goat cheese and apple omelet, and roast quail.

  I left a convert but quickly discovered Mr. Oliver's frustration: few of the restaurants cooking the best food in the city (or the country, for that matter) serve the best beers.

  Never mind. "Beer," as Mr. Oliver put it, "is an affordable luxury; many of the best beers in the world cost less than a latte at Starbucks."

  And though the best beers in the world are not on many restaurant beverage lists, they are not so rare that you can't find them in ordinary package stores, supermarkets and even corner markets.

  "For $2 or $3," Mr. Oliver said, "you can buy beers that match certain dishes perfectly, rather than trying to put wine where it doesn't belong and spending more than you need to."

  According to Mr. Oliver, beer can be versatile in ways that wine cannot because brewers think about flavor in a way that winemakers cannot.

  "Brewing is an act of intent," he said, "whereas there is more fate and serendipity involved in winemaking. If a winemaker's idea is to express the terroir, he might just get out of the way.

  "But with beer, you try to create a vision, and there's a tradition of doing so. Brewing is more like cooking than like winemaking; my nearest peers are not winemakers, but chefs."

  But even though a brewer can craft his product to complement a range of foods, the pairing itself is a creative process. After years of practice, Mr. Oliver — a native New Yorker who became fascinated with beer 20 years ago and has been involved with it ever since — is brilliant at it.

  Twenty years ago, Mr. Oliver, who had recently graduated from Boston University, began to travel around Europe, where he discovered that not all the beer "tasted like water."

  Equally fascinating, he thought, was that Europeans were not obsessed with beer; they simply drank it.

  Back home, he became an avowed enemy of what he calls the "lies" of mass-marketed food — the loaf of bread that isn't real bread, the hunk of fake cheese, the tasteless beer. And he began brewing his own beer, leading eventually to a job as an assistant at the SoHo-based Manhattan Brewing Company, which has since closed, and about 10 years ago, as the brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery.

  Since then, he has become widely acknowledged as an expert not only in making beer, but in tasting it, pairing it and talking about it.

  He's a good cook, too. Since we began in the morning, he started with an omelet of green apples and goat cheese, itself an unusual pairing — at least in the omelet world — and a wonderful one. With this, he served me a glass of Blanche de Chambly, a Belgian-style wheat beer made in Canada.

  I'd never liked wheat beer (which you're more likely to see labeled witbier), but Mr. Oliver calls it "the ultimate brunch beer." I could see what he was talking about. The beer, indeed, "busted up" the eggs and cheese, much like Champagne would. But its spiciness made it seem more complex than any wine, and a better match for the apples.

  Our palates primed, Mr. Oliver went on to prepare his spicy crab cakes, which are laced with cilantro. Nearly everyone knows that the fallback drinks for Asian food are beer and Champagne (a candid admission that most wines are unsuitable), but few people think, "Which beer?"

  The answer, says Mr. Oliver, is often India pale ale, and we drank the one he makes at Brooklyn Brewery.

  India pale ale, the subject of a tasting in the Dining section on May 26, was regularly shipped from England to Calcutta in the 19th century. The eight-month trip spoiled a lot of ordinary beer, so an ale was developed that was very dry, with little residual sugar for bacteria to feed on. And because it contained a high proportion of hops, which act as a preservative, the beer was quite bitter. For the same reason, it was also fairly high in alcohol.

  Those three elements that marked the ale's initial style are, in the hands of the new traditionalists like Mr. Oliver, back with a vengeance.

  The combination was fantastic. I could taste the hops and cilantro playing with each other, and the bitterness allowed the beer to stand up to the spiciness of the crab cakes. I could not think of a single wine that would have worked even half as well.

  We moved on to pasta with chorizo, lobster and peas, a multiflavored dish. If I were going to serve this with wine, I would shrug and chill a rosι; again, essentially an admission of defeat.

  Mr. Oliver paired it with Duvel (the name is the Flemish word for devil, a reference to its 8 percent alcohol content). Duvel is actually a blend of two beers, fermented separately, and virtually an icon in Belgium, served in its own special glass.

  Once again, the beer came on strong, with a powerful perfume, a refreshing dryness, and a slightly fruity and herbal character that elevated both beer and food. The whole really did become greater than the sum of its parts.

  Mr. Oliver is a campaigner and a proselytizer, but he is also a realist, and never pushes beer where it won't work. In general, he said, "wine does contrast best; beer does harmony best."

  So it annoys him when he knows that the classic food-wine pairings would be better as food-beer pairings. "Take the notion of port with chocolate cake. You like the idea of the port, but you don't taste anything. But if you eat that cake with the right beer — a framboise, or a chocolate stout — it dovetails beautifully. Unfortunately, people don't necessarily think in that direction."

  To prove his point, Mr. Oliver and I finished our little feast with chocolate almonds from Jacques Torres. Mr. Oliver poured Brooklyn Brewery's own Black Chocolate Stout — no, it does not contain chocolate; it's just very, very dark.

  The beer is lightly sweet, but it doesn't cloy the way most dessert wines do. Rather, it cleared my palate perfectly, blasting through the sweetness of the candied nuts.

  There was only one problem.

  As Mr. Oliver said, "The beer works so well, you can eat more."

  So we did.

  • Recipe: Goat Cheese and Apple Omelet
  • Recipe: Pasta With Lobster, Chorizo and Peas
  • Recipe: Spicy Crab Cakes


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