We've reached the middle of summer, when the sun is at its zenith and only a fool would be tempted to spend time over a hot stove. When the mercury starts to simmer in its glass cylinder it's time to head for the back yard grill or better yet, the refrigerated dining rooms of neighborhood restaurants. Chips and salsa, burgers and brats, rice vermicelli bowls and spring rolls, tandoori and tabbouleh: this is hot weather food and it demands to be washed down with cold beer.
Yes, it's possible to find a grassy Sauvignon Blanc that won't clash too badly with a cilantro and chile-laden chicken salad, but why bother? How many Kentucky colonels reach for a rosé when opening up a bucket of chicken? Extra crispy breasts, green chile dip and barbecued ribs are all solid beer territory.
To get a handle on some of the finer points of pairing beer and food, I turned to Ted Rice, brewer at Chama River Brewing Company in Albuquerque. Rice told me that when he's out to eat or cooking at home, he reaches for beer with his dinner because of the cleansing affect of carbonation, the cutting power of bitterness, and the flavors of caramel, toast, herbs and spice that can often not be found in wine. It didn't take much convincing for him to win me over.
We met in the bar at Chama River, and Rice had a taste test prepared. Laid out on the table were half a dozen bottles of beer he'd bought from Jubilation Wines and Spirits (Lomas at Carlisle, 255-4404), along with glasses awaiting pours of the beers he makes on the premises. He had asked the kitchen to prepare a handful of dishes for us, and one by one we tasted and tested.
The best way to pair beer and food is by learning about the different styles of beer and understanding what those styles mean in terms of aroma, flavor and body. It sounds intimidating, but it's not really. Yes, there are dozens of beer styles, but you've probably already mastered a few of them. Think about the style known as American pale ale. Some of the best known examples are those made by Sierra Nevada and Full Sail. These beers tend to be golden in color, with a refreshingly high level of carbonation. They're pleasantly bitter, more hoppy than malty (read: citrusy rather than caramelly). That citrus edge comes from American hops and it's the big reason why American pale ale is so often recommended for New Mexican, Mexican and Southeast Asian foods. Unlike most wines, this style of beers can stand up to the lime, cilantro, cheese and chile we're so fond of.
Other styles include brown ale (like Newcastle or Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale), which is typically caramelly and fruity, with hints of chocolate and coffee. India Pale Ales, such as Redhook IPA and Bridgeport IPA, are golden in color and tend to be relatively strong, with lots of hoppy citrus, floral and pine flavors. There are too many to list them all here, but you get the idea.
Our first taste was of Rice's Class VI Golden Lager, which falls into the category of pilsner, the most common (and commonly abused) style of American beer. Light and refreshing, Rice paired this beer with buttery, beer-steamed clams. "The butter is cleansed by the carbonation," he explained, "something you're not going to get with wine." Generally speaking, Rice recommends you choose a very light beer like pilsner when you want something cleansing, refreshing and lively, when you're eating foods with citrus and herb flavors. This beer could even go with salad, something at which wine almost always fails.
Chama River's Imperial Red is a double IPA, meaning that hops were added during brewing and again during aging. The result is a beer with higher alcohol, and bracing bitterness. This acidity allows the beer to cut through the heavy oiliness of something like fried chicken, leaving your mouth feeling refreshed and ready for the next bite. Remember IPA next time you're bringing home a bucket of chicken, or cooking up a creamy pasta sauce.
To stand up to the restaurant's baby back ribs in spicy barbecue sauce, Rice chose his Sleeping Dog Stout. This rich, dark beer is made with roasted malts that pick up on the little charred edges of the meat, while the subtle sweetness imparted by rolled oats and high alcohol content are enough to tame the spicy sauce. Think stout whenever you're eating steak, burgers, beef enchiladas with red chile or Mexican mole. The deep, chocolatey, coffee flavors in stouts also make them great pairs for chocolate desserts like Chama River's chocolate pot. Try this pairing at home and you'll knock the socks off of your wine snob friends.
Chama River Brewing Co. usually serves at least six house-brewed beers by the glass and pitcher. They sell beer to go by the growler (half a gallon), and keg (5, 7.5 or 15.5 gallons). Every Wednesday night, pints cost $2 from 4 p.m. until close (they're usually $3.75). Ted Rice also hosts beer-pairing dinners every other month. Call for reservations. Located at 4939 Pan American Freeway in Albuquerque. 505.342.1800.