The moment I heard this, the first thoughts of foods that most people might think would go with beer came to mind are pizza, pretzels, nachos, pub food....more beer. But I didn't think it's actually possible to pair beer with real meals to create a truly culinary and tasting experience. Then again, that is probably the mindset many of us having grown up here in the US. Overseas in Europe, beers and ales have been used as complements to meals rather than a drink chugged to generally result in intoxication and belligerent behavior.
Obviously this isn't my area of expertise in any way, shape or form....but rather my colleague Andrea Kaji's. So, Andrea had the opportunity to connect with Master Beer Sommelier, Marc Strooband. His interest in Belgian beers stirred in 1982 while in law school. A stint in catering school helped Stroobandt develop a passion and expertise for pairing food with beer. In 1998, Stroobandt was awarded an honorary knighthood by one of Europe’s oldest trade guilds, the La Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs (the Knighthood of the Brewers’ Mashstaff). He is also Commander in the Order of De Roze Olifant. He has been working with Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and Leffe to promote Belgian beers, brewing history and pouring rituals as well as educate consumers on the art of beer and food pairings. How awesome to connect with someone who really knows their booze! Here's the chat that ensued. Take it away Andrea!
Andrea: What makes Belgian beer a good pair for food in General?
Marc: Beer and food are for Belgians such a natural combination especially with the wide variety of beers, which are often made with less usual brewing ingredients and made in a unique way going back hundreds of years. This offers loads of different colors, aromas, texture and above all unique flavours, which each can be used to create great food pairings. Whether it is a more traditional dish or a new culinary creation, Belgian beers can offer something for everyone’s palate and genuinely enhance the eating and drinking experience. Think back on who originally made these beers and why they brewed them. Beer was and still is part of our love for food and drinks, but they also were part of the daily nutrition for people working in the fields, quarries, mines or factories. They needed something which could quench their thirst but also could deliver flavour and would go well with or even season their humble food. This is still reflected in the well balanced flavors of Belgian beers with more depth and intensity of flavours which can rival the best of wines and therefore deserve their place on every table with great food.
Andrea: What should you look for when pairing food with a Belgian Beer like Stella?
Marc: The key word is balance and you should try to achieve this with the food so you don’t overpower the dish or the beer. Stella Artois is such versatile beer to have with food and I often think of it as a good white wine. Therefore it will work with lighter dishes, salads, fish and seafood, but can also stand next to more complex dishes like steaks, fried or BBQ food, but my favorite is Stella Artois with a semi-hard cheese. Not only does the beer cleanse your pallet with the well balanced hoppy flavours and the crisp carbonation, the sweeter maltiness bring out the gorgeous cheese flavours so you always end up wanting to have more Stella Artois and more cheese.
Andrea: What are some challenges of pairing vegetarian food with Belgian beer?
Marc: Personally I don’t think there is a challenge because Belgian beers offer such a variety of flavors so you are bound to find a beer that will pair with your chosen vegetarian dish. All Belgian beers originate from different regions, each with their own culinary heritage and beers made with a different use of brewing ingredients and brewing methods. However they all have one thing in common a great balance of bitterness, sweetness and acidity underpinned with hoppy and spicy herbal flavors, not forgetting the beers which are flavored with fruit, honey, vegetables, chocolate to name just a few. Therefore Belgian beers can work in many different ways with vegetarian food and more than often they will add to the food flavors and uplift the dish. Take Hoegaarden the original Belgian White beer, which is seasoned with coriander and dried orange zest, offering a fresh fruity-lemony flavour with a soft spicy, dry finish which makes it perfect to have with lemon and coriander hummus and toasted pita bread.
Andrea: Why do you think Stella might be a good choice to pair with vegetarian dishes?
Marc: Stella Artois is a Belgian Lager and therefore different from other great Lagers because of its well-balanced flavor profile of fruity, malty sweetness and crisp hoppy bitter, dryness which allows you to approach the food pairing in all sorts of ways. Not only will it cut through richer vegetarian food flavors it also will cleanse your palate preparing you for the next mouth full. Both the sweetens and bitterness can be used to bridge or contrast food flavors or bring out the subtler flavors of the vegetarian dish, especially when we are talking about spicier dishes where Stella Artois works almost like a fire extinguisher without spoiling the spiciness. As I said before for me, Stella Artois and cheese: a marriage made in heaven. Give it a try, the possibilities for Stella Artois and vegetarian dishes are endless, making it a great challenge to try it out and experience it yourself.
Andrea: Do you have a favorite vegetarian/vegan dish you like to pair with Stella?
Marc: The best vegetarian I had with Stella Artois was a roasted tomato risotto, with toasted pine nuts, Parmigiano cheese shavings and a drizzle of the best extra virgin olive oil. The creaminess of the dish, the sweetness of the tomatoes and the beer worked so well hand in hand with the nutty, slightly salty and earthy flavors of the other ingredients, while the light acidity was almost embraced by the Stella Artois. Just thinking of it makes me want to have it right now.
Want to get more beer pairing tips from Marc himself? Marc will be hanging out at the Stella Artois booth at the Windy City Wine Festival taking place at the Buckingham Fountain.