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Prime barbecue season is upon us—and barbecuing lends itself to Mexican food.

I’ll never look down my nose at Mexican mass-produced beer—it’s better overall than American mass-produced beer, in my opinion—but an even better sensory experience can be had with Mexican cuisine if you step up the beer game. To put it bluntly: You can do better than beers where the ads instruct you to put a wedge of lime in the bottle. (Why didn’t they just add that when they were brewing?) But I digress.

Instead of just listing pairings of entrées and beer styles, it would be more helpful to summarize some of the most-common ingredients in Mexican cuisine, and explain why they might be better partners with certain types of beers:

Corn: This is a staple in both Mexican food and beer. That distinct corn flavor and sweetness make Mexican beer styles an obvious choice for pairing. A lot of Mexican beer (excluding the brews from the excellent Mexican craft breweries burgeoning at the moment) consists of German-style pilsner with corn; the darker stuff is Vienna lager with corn. Corn adds sugar to a beer with almost no body, making the finished beer drier, and usually imparting at least a hint of corn flavor. The Belgians have been doing something similar with candi sugar (made from beets) to dry out their stronger beers and make them devilishly drinkable.

Pork: German beer was basically designed around the stuff, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find more natural pairings than pork and most German styles. This has to do with malt: Many German styles call for malt to be kilned in such a way as to create melanoidins. Melanoidins are what give you that distinct browned-bread character—the same flavor you can get from searing pork or beef (not to be confused with caramelization). I think you can see why, say, a German bock is a no-brainer for pairing with pork.

Cheese: I mention cheese more for its texture than anything. (This is not to say that traditional Mexican cheeses are necessarily mild.) This one is more about mouthfeel, and crisper or higher-strength beers (or both in one, perhaps) will help scrub the palate. This is equally important with the next ingredient …

Beans: Frijoles are a massive staple, and mouthfeel is again the most-important factor to consider here, as there are also likely to be other flavors to deal with in any particular dish that includes or comes with beans.

Chiles: I am a huge fan of spice, and there are some very noteworthy things to take into account when pairing beer with spicy food. The first is that alcohol accentuates capsaicin (the stuff that makes chiles burn), and so do hops. This does not mean that you should never pair a triple IPA with spicy chicken tinga, but it does mean you should be aware that you’re throwing a bit of gasoline on that fire when you do. Malty, less-crisp beers help here, so consider English styles when up against spiciness. It works for Indian cuisine, too.

Now that we are armed with some fundamentals, let’s tackle actual pairings with specific dishes. One thing I haven’t covered yet is seafood. Ceviche is one of my favorites; while refreshing on its own, it can be exponentially so when paired with the right beer. A Belgian witbier and a German hefeweizen are both great choices. A citrusy pale ale is also not a bad idea, but beware of oily fish, as hops turn that flavor combination into metallic unpleasantness.

Carnitas is another beautiful thing to behold; I already mentioned one pairing (bock), but a Munich dunkel lager will do just as well.

Good chicken mole is hard to come by locally (if I am missing out on a place where they do it right, please contact me), which is a shame, because a nice porter or dry Irish stout will do wonders with it. Craft breweries have long caught on to Mexican chocolate flavors; you can try pairing with one of those, but instead, I recommend supporting the mole flavors and letting them do that work with your beer. Along those lines, if you’re looking to try something lighter that can still match the intensity of this dish, try a German schwarzbier: It’s a black lager that shares some darker beer flavors of chocolate, coffee and dark fruit, but without any roasty quality, and with a bit of a fire-extinguishing effect if the mole is up there in spice.

A few parting thoughts, before I send you on the path to sabor. One is that it is generally a good idea to match intensities with beer/food pairings. Another consideration is whether you want to complement, contrast or combine. This takes much more explanation, and the best way to do that is to read up on the subject. I wrote a column a while back on pairing beer and food that covers some of it, but if you want more depth, I would highly recommend Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide From the Pairing Pros by Julia Herz and Gwen Conley, or The Brewmaster’s Table by Garrett Oliver, one of the very few master cicerones. Both are great guides and are very good at getting you to be more mindful when it comes to pairing any beverage with food, never mind beer.

The next time you have a chance to enjoy a Mexican dish, forget the typical Mexican lagers, and swing for the gustatorial fences. And, hey: Even if your pairing lets you down, you still have beer and Mexican food to comfort you. ¡Salud!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer

During Coachella, I tasted a lot of delicious craft beer, both in the Craft Beer Barn and at the Rare Beer Bar, the latter headed by Jimmy Han, owner of Los Angeles’ Beer Belly. One of my favorite discoveries: Wicked Weed Marina, a blonde sour ale that is aged in wine barrels—with more than one pound per gallon of peaches and apricots.

Just days later came the announcement that Anheuser-Busch InBev had bought the Asheville, N.C.-based Wicked Weed. It became the latest of 20-plus former craft breweries that are now owned by corporate brewers. I say “former,” because the Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as small, independent and traditional—with less than 25 percent ownership by a non-craft brewer.

What does this all mean? I spoke to Julia Herz, the Brewers Association’s Craft Beer Program director, and Mitch Steele, the former brewmaster of Stone Brewing who is now the founder, brewmaster and COO of New Realm Brewing, coming soon to Atlanta.

There are a lot of feelings on both sides as far as craft breweries “selling out.” What are your thoughts?

JH: … It’s not happening in mass, right? Ninety nine percent of the 5,300-plus breweries are still independent and small. But as the purchases continue to happen … the Department of Justice issued a consent degree over (AB InBev’s) purchases in 2015 and 2016—Devil’s Backbone being a key one, which was approved, with some changes made, by the DOJ. … The more that the large, global brewers become a one-stop shop for brands and beer styles, the harder it is to make the marketplace fair, and for beer lovers to really get the choices that many beer-lovers desire.

MS: I think it’s really dangerous what’s going on right now, honestly. The problem is that the majority of the beer-drinking public doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the business practices of large brewers, and how it impacts small brewers. … When a brewery is buying tap space, which is technically illegal, small breweries can’t. Most small breweries won’t do it because they don’t want to do something that’s against the law, and they can’t afford to play that game, either. … When somebody who’s kind of a casual craft-beer fan walks into a bar, and sees all these beers that are “craft,” yet they’re all brewed at Anheuser-Busch, most of the time, (customers are) not going to register it’s not a small, independent brewer. When these brewers can potentially come in and sell a keg of beer for 50 to 60 percent of what a small craft brewer can, it really is damaging the ability of the craft brewers to sell their beer.

Were you surprised by the Wicked Weed buyout?

JH: … (In some respects), I am not surprised, because they (AB InBev) continue to make regional purchases in key beer markets of the country: Four Peaks in Arizona, Blue Point in New York, Los Angeles for Golden Road. These are very geographically, strategically made procurements. … Also, (as of now, the Wicked Weed) deal has not gone through. It’s an announcement from AB InBev that they are moving to make a partnership and bringing Wicked Weed into their brand portfolio. It’s still subject to review.

MS: Well, that surprised me. I’d go so far as to say that it shocked me. I thought they were in it for the long haul. I know (co-owners) Luke and Walt (Dickinson) pretty well, and I’ve brewed with them before, and we’ve hung out a lot. … I know Luke and Walt are part owners, but I don’t know what percentage they own. I know they had some big-time investors in that brewery, and it could have been mostly their decision, but who knows? But, yeah, it shocked me and disappointed me. Some of these are not a big surprise: You hear through the grapevine that some of these newer breweries are building themselves to sell … and they’re just trying to get their business to a point to where they’re attractive to a large brewer. … You know, when somebody comes and offers you a ridiculous amount of money, who’s to say you’re wrong for taking that and setting up your family for generations? You can’t really fault it. I just wish it didn’t happen.

Do you sympathize with any of these craft breweries after they explain themselves on social media? They say: “We had to do this because of distribution. The beer will stay the same.”

MS: Yeah. I worked with Budweiser for 14 years. This was back in the 1990s. People looked at Budweiser as the evil empire, but I dealt with the reaction from craft brewers all the time: “It’s lousy beer.” I’d get on my soap box and say, “Ya know, you may not like it, but don’t ever talk negative about the quality, because the people who brew this beer are as passionate about it as you are about yours.” But it’s a different company now. I certainly understand the backlash. I can relate to it because I dealt with it for a long time myself. … I think it’s a very uncomfortable feeling for most of them, because the craft-brewing business is so built on community and comradery. Now, all of sudden, you’re not in the club anymore. That’s a hard thing to swallow, especially when you’ve got so many friends in the business. … People who don’t have ownership in the brewery, and have no say in it—they’re just kind of there when it happens. Those are the people who I feel really bad for, because they had no say.

Do distribution laws and better access have anything to do with why they are selling?

MS: The whole access-to-ingredients thing, I think, is a little bit overplayed. If you’re a growing craft brewer, there are enough suppliers out there. If you work it hard enough, you can get what you need, with a few exceptions. For example, Galaxy hops—nobody can get Galaxy hops right now. Can a big brewer go in and get Galaxy hops? I don’t know if they can. … I think really the big advantage for a small brewer joining forces with a big brewer is the access to the technical resources, so they can understand what’s happening in the brewing process—be it really complex lab equipment or whatever. And then distribution access is huge. … Those are the things that really matter.

JH: Yes. As soon as you sell, you get instant access to things that those 99 percent of the 5,300 breweries don’t have. You get into a system in the network for better economies of scale, for purchasing raw materials and ingredients. You get instant distribution that cannot be matched. … The number of distributors over time continues to wane. Even though we have 5,300-plus breweries today, there are only 1,000-plus active distributors, and 500-plus of those are controlled by AB InBev. MillerCoors has several hundred as well. Distributors are amazing partners to beer, but it’s a matter of priority. How do they decide what they’re going to sell? When you’re an AB house … their first priority is likely those AB brands.

Published in Beer

“There is good living, where there is good beer.”

Since I started writing about beer, this has been my mantra—and, of course, good food is part of good living, too.

There’s more synergy between the beer and food worlds than ever before. Brewers have produced a range of delicious beers to suit nearly every kind of food. The Brewers Association reports that the number of breweries in the U.S. just passed 5,000—a record high. That means there’s a ton of beer-and-food-pairing potential! Therefore, it’s no surprise that restaurateurs are increasingly recognizing the versatility of craft beers—and their various complex favors—when it comes to food pairing.

“Dr.” Bill Sysak is respected around the world for his encyclopedic knowledge of beer styles and flavor profiles. Dr. Bill, as he’s known in the craft-beer community, is the co-founder and CEO at Wild Barrel Brewing Company and the former craft beer ambassador at Stone Brewing Co. He suggests matching strength with strength: Strong-flavored foods demand assertive beers. And for crying out loud, taste things first!

“I’ve always been a proponent whenever possible of knowing the flavor profiles of both the beer and the food, personally, versus just reading about it,” says Dr. Bill.

Grains like wild rice or polenta pair well with clean and crisp Bohemian-style pilsners or American amber lagers. The complementary grain flavors balance hops while staying light on the palate.

Love sour and funky beers? Try them with rich meats and root vegetables. Combining these flavors brings out umami.

While filet mignon is classically paired with pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon, a rich stout has the potential of bringing out flavors that one won’t taste with wine. Brown ales are also bold enough to complement roasted meat.

That said … breaking the rules is totally OK—and even encouraged! Discover what works together on your palate.

Wes Lieberher, the executive chef at Beer Belly in Los Angeles, is a rule-breaker, as well as a food and beer lover. You must try his beer-braised octopus. He’s putting his own twist on what’s popular; for example, he created a French dip with duck and duck au jus. When it comes to pairing, he tends to experiment with what’s available.

“I leave it open,” Lieberher says. “We switch our taps so much, so there’s always a different beer, so there could always be a slightly different flavor to it, which is kinda cool.”

As for breaking rules: He pairs his beer-battered fish and chips, a lighter dish, with a hoppier IPA, rather than the lighter pilsner used in the dish.

“A lot of people will say, ‘This goes with this,’” Lieberher says. “I won’t cook with an IPA, but IPAs will go great with something I’m using a lighter beer with.”

More and more, brewers, restaurateurs and chefs are using what’s available to them locally. This tends to lead to better natural pairings.

“I was one of the first major people at my level—beer-and-food pairers—to talk about regionality,” says Dr. Bill. “Back when water was bad for you, people had to have whatever (alcohol was available in the) area of the world they lived. … In the Grape Belt, they drank wine with their meals, or diluted wine for their children. In the Grain Belt, everybody drank beer or mead or cider.

“If you had to eat the same kind of food sources every day, and the only beverage you had to wash it down with made you say ‘yuck’ every time, those styles wouldn’t survive, right? You would find the styles that work well.”

Julia Herz wrote the book on beer pairing. No, really: She co-authored Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide From the Pairing Pros with Gwen Conley. Herz is the Craft Beer Program director at the Brewers Association and a certified cicerone.

“The localization movement isn’t just isolated to food,” she says. “That’s where we became aware of it—from the slow-food movement, farm to table—and now it’s farm to keg to tap! We’ve got brewers thinking like chefs.”

While beer has reclaimed its place at the dinner table in some places, many restaurants still put only wine in the spotlight. Herz believes it’s time that more of the 115,000 people in the U.S. craft-brewing community speak up with a simple request: “Dear restaurateurs: It’s time to have your menu present beer in the same manner as food and wine.”

Herz suggests trusting the waiter or beer-server if you’re at a restaurant that has a respectable-looking beer menu

“Go to establishments that hang their hat on pairings. Have them be your guide,” she says. “If they have wine pairings, it’s a good place to push them and ask them about beer pairings.”

But to repeat: The one definitive source for what beer works well with what food is your own palate. Experiment and embrace your inner anarchist.

“We all aren’t the same tasting type, and we’re not all going to perceive what we taste as the same,” Herz says. “So it’s all about the journey—experimenting and being able to articulate to yourself or to others what you did and didn’t like.”

Thankfully, people are taking her advice. As of March 2016, nearly half of craft-beer drinkers surveyed said they drink craft with food more now than they did a couple of years ago.

Make no mistake: Beer is king and should have a place at the dinner table. When combined, the sales of wine ($37.5 billion) and spirits ($69 billion estimated) in the United States barely surpass the sales of beer ($101.5 billion—$19.6 billion from small and independent U.S. craft brewers). This tells us there is unmistakable potential.

Cheers, and bon appétit!

Published in Beer