This past weekend I had the opportunity to flex my beer muscles for my first-ever beer and food pairing at a dinner with Shawn, Jenny, and Nicole from The Naked Pig Meat Company of Oakboro, North Carolina. The Naked Pig Meat Company is owned by husband and wife team, Shawn and Jenny Hatley, and sells animal welfare approved meat that does not have added antibiotics, hormones, or artificial enhancements. The Naked Pig is planning to start selling local craft beer soon and wanted to explore some beers that will compliment their exceptional products.
Planning for the pairing began a few weeks prior to our meeting. Before I could pick the beers, I had to know what foods they planned to serve (obvs), but I also wanted to know more about their goals for selling beer. Did they plan to keep it in the coolers or out on the floor? What did “local” mean to them – the Charlotte area, all of North Carolina, North and South Carolina? How many types of beer were they thinking of selling? What other stores in their area sell beer and do they consider their store to be competing with those stores? Were their customers interested in craft beer? What sorts of packaging did they want – cans, 12 ounce bottles, 22 ounce bottles? I tried to think of every possible question I would have when deciding which beers to pick out for them.
After some discussion of dietary and drinking habits (I’m a vegetarian*, one participant does not like beer, and one does not drink at all), we decided on a cheese tray with jams and honey; bacon; burgers; hot dogs; steak; and black bean burgers for the vegetarian doing a beer pairing dinner for a meat company. The cheeses for the cheese tray were goat cheese, Brie, and cheddar.
The first step I took once I had the menu was to think about beer styles that would pair well with multiple things at the dinner. I didn’t want to show up with a different beer for each and every food. For one thing, that would have been way too much beer for everyone to sample (Oakboro is about an hour’s drive east of Charlotte). For another, the Naked Pig doesn’t have unlimited space for beer. Their store is a perfect size for their products but space is at a premium and their coolers don’t need to be crowded with beer. After all, it’s not the Naked Beer Company. From speaking with the Naked Pig, I knew they wanted beer as an add-on to their meats, so I wanted to pick beers that would pair well with more than one of their products and with more than one preparation to add even more value to the beers. Too many beers would over complicate the experience and overwhelm the customer, particularly someone who is new to the beer and food pairing experience.
Because I’m still new to beer pairing, I couldn’t think of many pairings off the top of my head. The two I did think of were a Brown Ale paired with the cheddar and a Flanders Red for the steak. To help out with the rest of the pairings, I listed each food that Naked Pig was going to serve and then turned to two of my favorite beer books: Tasting Beer, by Randy Mosher, and Beer Pairing, by Julia Herz and Gwen Conley. While both books are helpful, Beer Pairing was the most helpful in this case because the entire book is dedicated to pairing beer with food, whereas Tasting Beer offers a much more comprehensive look at beer, with one chapter focusing on the basics of food and beer pairings.
With the help of my books, I decided on Berliner Weisse, IPA, and Brown Ale for the cheese tray; Brown Ale and Rauchbier for the bacon; IPA and Brown Ale for the hot dogs, hamburgers, and black bean burgers; Rauchbier and IPA for the hamburgers; and American Stout and Flanders Red for the steak. After I had my list of beer styles, my next task was to decide which local beers would be the best fit for each style. I had a few ideas already, but consulted my Untappd check-ins to see if I was overlooking any breweries that would be a good fit for the dinner and for The Naked Pig to carry. While I wanted local beers for each choice, I also wanted to choose beers that I had had before so I didn’t show up with any duds. Because of that, I ended up going with Schlenkerla for the Rauchbier and Duchesse de Bourgogne for the Flanders Red. Both beers are the standard for their styles and arguably are the styles. There were a couple beers that are more local than Germany and Belgium, but I hadn’t had them and so I stuck with the representative styles.
Once I had my list of local beers, I headed to Total Wine and More to pick them up. I had prepared alternates for my list in case I couldn’t find anything, which came in handy because a few of the beers I wanted weren’t available. I ended up selecting Champion Brewing’s Tart (Berliner Weisse); Triple C’s 3C (IPA); Birdsong Brewing’s Lazy Bird Brown (Brown Ale); Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Marzen (Rauchbier); Blind Squirrel’s Nut Brown Ale (Brown Ale); Benford Brewing’s Smoked O’Hickory (Brown Ale); Duchesse de Bourgogne (Flanders Red Ale); Olde Hickory’s Hickory Stick Stout; and Highland Brewing’s Black Mocha Stout. Although I ended up with more beer than I had originally anticipated (story of my life), I wanted to give everyone the opportunity to try different interpretations of the same style from different breweries.
When it came time to do the actual pairings, I poured a couple of ounces of each beer into small plastic cups; the goal of the pairing is to discover flavor combinations that work or don’t work for us, not to get wasted. We were a little more disciplined at first, talking about each beer style, sampling the beer with the food, and then discussing. As the night went on, we became less formal, although we still talked about which beer to pair with which food and who liked and disliked the pairing. Some of the pairings were a home run, namely the Berliner Weisse with the goat cheese and the Flanders Red with the steak. One friend was particularly impressed with the sour beer styles pairings because he doesn’t normally care for sour beers. Luckily none of the pairings was a bomb, although one of the beers was so over-carbonated that I couldn’t pour any samples from it, even after letting it sit for a few minutes.
At the end of the night, we talked about which beers were our favorites as well as the different breweries that were represented on the table. We also talked about the benefits of different kinds of packaging. For instance, cans are nice because they are compact, stackable, and easily portable, but large format bottles can look a little more elegant when presented at a party or on a dinner table, similar to wine bottles.
Overall, the night was a success, even if I didn’t manage to convert the two non-beer drinkers to beer. If you’re thinking you’d like to try a beer and food pairing, go for it. It was intimidating for me, but once I got started, it was a lot of fun and I learned more about beer pairings, which is something I’ve been excited to do for a long time. There are a ton of helpful resources out there to help you decide which beer and which food to pair. Next up for me is a more in-depth beer and cheese pairing. Stay tuned!
To learn more about The Naked Pig, visit their website.
*Because I’ve had a lifetime of being asked the same questions about being a vegetarian, here is a list of answers to your questions, titled Standard Questions Every Vegetarian Gets Asked By Everyone: I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 12-years-old. I’m sure I had a noble, 12-year-old reason for doing so. No, I don’t eat fish. Yes, I eat cheese. Yes, I eat eggs but not usually by themselves because I don’t care for the taste. No, I’m not a vegan. Yes, my husband eats meat. No, I don’t cook it for him, but only because I don’t know how to cook meat well and he does, not because I judge him for eating meat. No, it doesn’t bother me when people eat meat in front of me. Also, I don’t need to hear how you could probably be a vegetarian because you “don’t really eat that much meat” – it’s a personal choice and I don’t care whether you eat meat or not.