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Pairing Beer with Food: Three Classic Pairings

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Matt Tunnell

Frisbee player, beer lover

This is a new series for us Beer Travelers in which we'll explore the wonderful possibilities of pairing beer with food.  In this post, I'll take a look at some tried and true pairings and try to get into what makes them tick.  In the future, I'd like to take a deeper look into developing specific pairings while examining everything that goes into such a process.
Mussels and Witbier: This is a traditional Belgian pairing in which the beer is also used in the preparation of the dish. In the version served at Chicago's very own Hopleaf they begin creating a flavorful broth by sautéing shallots and celery with aromatics like fresh thyme and bay leaves. They add Wittekerke, a Belgian Witbier, to make a broth in which the mussels will steam. As they cook, the mussels open and release delicious juices enhancing the broth. Hopleaf serves up the whole thing with frites and bread for sopping up the broth.
As a pairing, the beer accentuates the flavor of the mussels, providing sweetness to balance the brininess of the mussels, while also brightening the palate with citrus notes (Witbier is generally brewed with citrus). Belgian witbiers are minimally bitter, which preserves the delicate flavors of the broth. If you are planning to attempt this at home, I'd strongly encourage you to find an actual Belgian witbier as many North American examples, including Allagash White and Unibroue'e Blanche de Chambly are too hoppy and create an unpleasant bitterness in the broth, although they might function as a pairing. Recommend beers include Wittekerke and Hoegaarden.
 
Oysters and Irish Stout: This classic pairing dates back to the days before overfishing, when oysters were widely available and enjoyed by the British and Irish working class, which is a far cry from the luxurious oysters and champagne of today. Unlike the mussels of the previous pairing, the oysters require no preparation other than shucking. PARA Dry Irish stouts provide a great foil for oysters. Irish stouts are characterized by an almost smoky roast flavor, a result of the addition of unmalted roasted barley to the recipe. This roast flavor, devoid of sweetness serves to bring out the ocean flavor from the oysters. In addition, the deceptively light yet creamy texture of the stout when served from a nitro tap (or with a widget) plays beautifully with the almost ethereal texture of the oysters.
Guinness Draught is a good choice for this pairing, as is Beamish Irish Stout, though Guinness Extra stout is not recommended, as its stronger flavor might overpower the oysters.
 
Weisswurst and Weissbier: This is a traditional morning or early lunch pairing, reflecting the Bavarian tradition of not eating Weisswurst after noon. Weisswurst is a delicate white sausage made from veal and pork belly flavored with parsley, lemon, mace, ginger, onions, and cardamom. Weissbier is an appropriate pairing for weisswurst because it is light enough not obscure the tastes of the sausage while also providing complementary flavors of its own. Many weissbiers have lemony notes that that recall the lemon from the sausage while the clovey phenols of the beer mix well with the spices of the sausages. Weissbier also pairs well with the timing, as it is light enough to consume early in the day.

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