Last: beer meets food, wine looks bewildered

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I’ve never said this out loud before, but here goes: sometimes I don’t fancy wine with dinner, so I’ll have a beer instead. There I said it, but for the record, there was a time when that didn’t seem like an option. The explosion of the craft beer movement has opened up a world of flavors and styles to North Americans weaned from mass-produced bubbly, seemingly created to quench their thirst.

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For starters, alcohol is a diuretic, so any feeling of quenching thirst is just because it’s wet. If you’re thirsty, drink water (and if you can stick to the formula of drinking a glass of water for every glass of wine or beer, I guarantee your body will thank you in the morning). Like many, my introduction to what we now call craft beer came from travels in Europe. That first pint of stout in an Irish pub, a pint of bitters in London, a crispy pilsner in Berlin and that first taste of Belgian beer (admittedly in France); all were revelations.

In truth, there are examples of craft beers available since the 1960s, but they were often elusive unless you were in a big, cosmopolitan city. In Canada, producers like Unibroue from Quebec, and yes, our very own Big Rock, have helped change that. Unibroue almost single-handedly introduced Belgian-style beers to Canadians and the fact that they were purchased by Sleeman’s (which in turn was purchased by Japanese brewing magnate Sapporo) provided recognition that the beer-drinking public craved for more and better options. The big players can no longer ignore this fact and have therefore regularly acquired craft brewers. I don’t blame the small brews for the sale, it’s hard to ignore a dump truck full of cash when it’s parked at your back door. The terms microbrewery and craft brewery are somewhat vague but, in general, they simply apply to volume. The perception that craft beer is mostly made by small, local brewers generally rings true, but I think the term applies more to style and quality than volume.

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Beer, like wine, has been with us since the dawn of civilization and as such has a rich history as a food partner. There’s a huge world of flavor profiles to choose from these days and it can get confusing. Beer is actually broken down into two broad categories; lagers, which are made with bottom-fermenting yeasts at cold temperatures, and ales, which are top-fermented at warm temperatures. The idea that lagers are generally lighter in flavor and alcohol than ales is generally true, but there are many exceptions to this. Ingredients like grains, hops, water, and yeast all play their part, as do flavoring compounds like fruits, spices, and even lactose. Craftbeer.com, a great resource for beer information, divides beer into six broad flavor categories: crisp and clean, malty and sweet, dark and roasty, hoppy and bitter, spicy and sour fruity, and tart and funky. This rich tapestry of flavors means you can have fun experimenting, which I’ve been doing quite a bit lately.

Geoff Last associates beer with various foods.
Geoff Last associates beer with various foods. .jpg

I’m a big fan of flank steak, it cooks quickly and lends itself to a wide variety of seasonings. I mark the meat on both sides and season it with a tangy dry marinade. I make it a few hours ahead of time and then grill it, either on the BBQ or in a cast iron grill pan, depending on the weather. I paired it with Establishment Brewing’s Fat Sherpa, a dark porter with a classic chocolate/coffee malt note. I clearly underestimated the dark beer food-wise as the match was near perfect. The Porter was sturdy enough to slice through the spices while complementing the subtle coffee notes.

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Then there was the Belgian Moules Frites (moules et frites), a dish of steamed mussels in white wine with crispy fries, a simple and perfect dish. I could have opted for a Belgian beer, but I had Cabin Brewing’s Amaaaaazing Lemon Meringue Pie beer on hand (it contains lactose for the meringue note). The slightly tart lemon note, tempered by the lactose, was ideal with the dish, partly because I used lemon juice with white wine, garlic and shallots to cook the mussels.

So far so good, but I was wondering how the beer would stand up to a plate of pasta in a fresh tomato sauce. The challenge here is the acidity of the fresh tomatoes and basil, which I use liberally, as well as parmesan cheese. Most of my research indicated that a lager would be a good match for this dish, so I tried Born Brewing (formerly Born Colorado) Get Lucky Lager and it wasn’t a bad match, but it seemed like I needed something a little crispier and with more acidity. I had some of Establishment’s Gold Past Life (a limited-release Czech lager) on hand, a pilsner with a refreshing 3.8% alcohol content. It was a solid pairing, not quite as perfect as a glass of good Chianti, but much better than expected (the same beer went great with a chicken and brown rice stir-fry with some chilies and ginger, though).

The establishment just celebrated its third anniversary and they’ve come a long way in three years, winning Brewery of the Year at the Canadian Brewing Awards in 2021. To celebrate, they’ve released eight new limited release beers; these tend to go fast, so buy them while you can.

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One thing is certain ; Calgary has become an exciting destination for craft beer and it’s clear I need to do some extra research, all in the name of journalism, of course.

I’ve been asked for this dry rub recipe many times over the years and have used it extensively in my cooking classes, so I thought I’d include it. It’s great for things like flank steak, pork, and chicken (leave out the coffee if you’re using it for the chicken).

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 tbsp New Mexican chili powder (a mild, slightly sweet chili available from Silk Road)

1 teaspoon dry mustard

½ tsp coffee (I use espresso), finely ground

½ tsp hot smoked paprika (if you don’t have the hot version, add ½ tsp chili powder)

½ teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon of raw sugar

1/8 teaspoon of cinnamon.

It’s enough for a flank steak, but I use it so much I make a big batch and store it in a jar.

• On a sad note, Canada lost one of its most dynamic and beloved winemakers, Paul Pender (of Tawse Winery) earlier this month. His contribution to the evolution of wine in Canada and the passion he brought to the craft will never be forgotten. Condolences to his family and friends.

Geoff Last is a longtime Calgary wine merchant, writer, instructor and broadcaster. He can be heard on CJSW’s Road Pops program on Fridays at 4 p.m. He received a fellowship at the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium for articles in this column.

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