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Pairing Beer With Food: Pizza

Matt Tunnell

Frisbee player, beer lover

Beer and pizza is probably the first beer pairing that most people think of. I'd like to look beyond the standard of American adjunct lagers like Bud/Miller/Coors and delivery pizza, satisfying though it might be. Pizza can be a difficult pairing because of tomato sauce, especially in the case of that divine casserole otherwise known as deep dish pizza. Tomato sauce manages to be sweet, fruity, acidic, and savory all at once which makes it exceedingly difficult to make a good match. The original Beer Traveler, Michael Jackson, swore by Vienna Lager as a great pizza pairing, especially for deep dish which is a veritable sauce bomb. I can;t vouch for this pairing myself but I'm excited to try it next time I get deep dish. If you care to try it I'd recommend Metropolitan Brewing's Dynamo as a tasty, easy to find Vienna Lager. Great Lakes' Elliot Ness would be another good choice. However, this pairing is beyond the scope of this post, which will deal with thin crust pizza. Two of the pizzas I made stray from the beaten path but the other two are my best approximation of delivery classics.  The pizzas were tasted twice, once in Chicago and once in Milwaukee.  The pizza photos are from Milwaukee. Read on for the details... 
Rosemary and Potato Pizza: This pizza may not be particularly familiar to Americans but it's well-established in Rome. This pizza also features garlic and olive oil but no sauce. I thought that Samuel Smith's Old Brewery Pale Ale would be a good pairing. It's subtle maltiness and understated hop character would not overwhelm this pizza. In addition, many British Pale Ales have a biscuity malt character reminiscent of the browned edge on baked bread and fried potatoes. I also hoped that the reduced hop presence would resonate with the piney rosemary.    

Prosciutto, Mushrooms, and Sage: This pizza is my own creation, though I can't imagine I'm the first to assemble this combination. All three toppings were chosen for their supposed affinities with the Belgian Trappist ale Orval. According to Garret Oliver in his book, The Brewmaster's Table, both prosciutto and mushrooms feature earthy, funky flavors that reflect the earthiness of the special Orval yeasts which include Brettanomyces. The sage was suggested by the slight herbal aroma of Orval.

Pineapple, Bacon, and Ham: Hawaiian pizza can be a divisive topic. I'm in favor of it, although I skipped the hot peppers that sometimes tag along so as to better taste the pineapple and smoky cured pork. I also added bacon, which requires no justification. To pair I chose a smoky wheat beer, the Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchweizen. My intention was for the smoke in the beer to match the smoke in the meat while the banana flavors present in most German wheat beers would complement the tropical pineapple.

Pepperoni: This pizza won't surprise anyone, but the intense spiciness of the pepperoni would challenge any subtle beer. To cut through the greasy spiciness of the pepperoni I selected Ska Brewing's Euphoria Pale ale, which is also hoppy enough to assert its own flavor.

Conclusions: My first pairing was definitely the strongest. The old brewery pale ale accentuated the subtle flavors of the crust and the potatoes while also highlighting the rosemary. Each sip and each bite was more flavorful and more delicious than the last. However, the Orval pairing was a miss. The pizza was tasty and the beer was great but it never seemed like they were on the same page. The bready pizza crust prevented the earthy flavors of the mushrooms and the prosciutto from harmonizing with those of the beer and Orval's dry bitter finish clashed with the sage.
I now believe that a maltier, simpler beer would be a good pairing for this pizza. The crust will go better with such a beer and the earthy flavors will mix well with the slight sweetness of a maltier beer. I'd suggest something like Half Acre's Over Ale, which is a sort of hybrid brown ale and bitter, or Two Brother's Domaine Du Page, a pleasantly malty French country ale. Alternately, if you're inclined to change the pizza the addition of a sauce would help, perhaps a parsley pesto.
The rauchweizen blanched before the power of the Hawaiian pizza. The tomato sauce killed any trace of banana flavored esters while the smokiness of the beer could not compete with the meats. Schlenkerla makes smokier beers which would probably be a better option. The next smokiest beer is the Rauchbier Marzen, which is a medium bodied smoked lager. The smokiest beer is the Rauchbier Urbock, which is a smoked bock. Another angle would be pairing with a pineappley American IPA which should be able to stand the tomato sauce while complementing the pineapple. My favorite example of this style is Bell's Two Hearted Ale.
The Euphoria performed its job admirably by matching the intensity of the pepperoni with hop flavor while also scrubbing my tongue and leaving me refreshed for my next bite. The slight sweetness on the finish of the Euphoria also proved a nice contrast to the salty pepperoni. I will admit that Euphoria was not my first choice for this pairing, but I was unable to find a bomber of Half Acre's Daisy Cutter in Hyde Park. In retrospect, the Daisy Cutter would likely have been too dry. Three Floyds' Alpha King would be a good local option to replace the Euphoria, which is a winter seasonal.



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