This post also functions as a test of the Blogsy app to post from the iPad.
I grew up (part-time anyway) in a wine-drinking house. From the time I was sixteen I was allowed a glass by my plate at dinner, and always some of the dinner conversation was devoted to the bottle on the table, where it came from, who recommended it, and always how well it matched with the food. I like to think I picked up at least a working understanding of wine-and-food matching there in my dad's kitchen, and I usually still don't make any gross errors when choosing a glass of wine in a restaurant. Although I am a bit rusty, as I will explain.
I was only of legal age to buy alcohol for three years before I got married, and of course I didn't buy many bottles while I was living on my own. When Mark and I married, we spent part of our honeymoon skiing and part touring the Sonoma wine country. When I came home and found myself browsing Surdyk's to put together a little bottle collection, I became aware of a rather steep mismatch between my appreciation training and my grocery budget. Also, the layout of Surdyk's emphasized a major tradeoff that had never really been apparent at home: the more expensive wine I bought, the less cheese I would be able to eat.
I always keep a couple of "good" bottles around just in case, and a bottle or two of bubbly in the fridge. But the short version of the long story: I learned to drink cheap (well, good-value) wine and like it.
Anyway, I sort of missed the whole serious wine-food-matching snobbery thing, because it's fun. We have a bit more disposable income now, and I suppose I could have started buying more expensive wine, but old habits die hard. I am not a penny pincher by any means, but when I heft a $30 bottle, I can hear a little voice whispering in my ear: "you can feed your whole family of six for this money at the family restaurant around the corner, the one with the $1.00 pie special."
Enter beer. Beer has a lot going for it. Let's review:
- You can buy really great beer for a fraction of the cost-per-serving of upper-middle-class wine.
- It usually comes in smaller containers, meaning that there aren't leftovers oxidizing in your fridge all the time, and it is always worth opening a container even for one person.
- It often (not always) has lower alcohol content, so you can enjoy a flight without necessarily landing under the table, and that is particularly good if you are a lightweight like me.
- There's plenty of variety to explore, both locally and globally.
- Some kinds of food match better with beer than with wine.
And finally -- I didn't actually know much about beer, let alone about beer-food matches, so I would get to learn about it. To tell you the truth, I didn't really know the meaning of words like "lager" and "porter" and "ale" and "stout." I could recognize a pilsener and that was about it. I could identify a few specific local beers I liked, and I knew I did not like the bitter IPAs with which Mark filled our fridge, but other than that I didn't have a working knowledge even of my own taste. I decided I needed to rectify this situation. And for this.... I needed a BOOK.
The trip to the beer store would have to wait. I must first acquire the theoretical underpinnings, and then move on to the practical applications.
The book I chose was The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food by Garrett Oliver. It proved to be a good basic introduction to the world of beer.
It begins with a basic overview of how breweries produce the different kinds, what the various ingredients do to the product, and a history of the developments in beer-brewing. There is also a basic explanation of the principles involved in matching beers to food -- the basic equivalent of knowing whether to choose red or white, demi-sec or dry, when you select a wine to go with your dinner. In that chapter, by the way, he argues that it's much easier to match beer than wine to your food, because there aren't really any foods that clash with every beer the way that some foods fight with any wine you want to pair it with -- eggs, vinaigrette salad dressings, certain desserts.
Then it goes on to describe different "brewing traditions" around the world, each tradition divided up into specific styles, explaining what sort of food each goes with, and recommending individual beers that are good representatives of the styles. As a beer novice hoping to learn about the world of beer, this was exactly what I needed. Mark and I began working through the book immediately. (I'll write another post telling you about our process, which has only just begun.)
The "brewing traditions" chapters in the book, by the way, are lambic, wheat beer, British-style ales, Belgian-style ales, and Czech-German lagers, plus a chapter on American craft beers and one that pulls together three "unique specialties" (altbier, Kölsch, and smoked beers, in case you are curious) that don't fit into the other categories. Each chapter covers several styles: for example, the lager chapter has sections on pilsner, helles, Dortmunder export, dark (dunkel) lager, Vienna/märzen/Oktoberfest lagers, bock/doppelbock, and schwarzbier.
The book finishes up with a few short notes on glassware and serving temperature, neither of which we have bothered with much yet, except to note that if we decided to buy special beer-tasting glassware, a lot of the different shapes can be found at IKEA.
I will post later on what we have learned so far (some) and what we still have left to learn (a lot). For the time being, I will just note that as self-improvement projects go, you could certainly find many that are less fun than resolving to drink better beer.