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Ask the Experts: Sean Paxton

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Sean Z. Paxton is the Executive Chef and Owner of, where he creates, cooks and serves multiple course menus highlighting beer as an essential ingredient. He writes for Beer Advocate Magazine, DRAFT Magazine and is a guest author for variety of other food and beer magazines. Sean hosts a monthly podcast “The Home Brewed Chef” on The Brewing Network and shares with listeners’ philosophies, techniques and ideas for cooking and pairing with beer. His travels take him to breweries throughout the U.S. and Europe where he utilizes his beer and flavor knowledge to collaborate with craft brewers to create beer recipes used typically for specialty events and releases.

Brady asks:
I am going to be throwing a beer vs. wine food pairing party for my 30th B-Day coming up. I have some friends that are more or less wine snobs and some friends that really only drink the fizzy yellow beers; and I want to show how well good craft beers can pair with food and taste delicious. The plan is to pair a beer and a wine with each course. Everyone will vote which they thought paired best with each course and at the end we will total up the votes to see which one paired best overall. I was wondering if you may have some tips on what beers may pair best with each course. The menu is themed around Japanese steakhouse food.

There are so many options that I didn't quite know what might work. I have also been trying to get some tips from the wine communities online and haven't had much luck (they don't seem as open and friendly as the homebrew community). Would you maybe also know some wine pairings that might work? I appreciate any tips or advice. Thanks so much. Cheers!

Sean answers:
I love this idea of not only having some great beers and wines, but putting them next to each other for your friends to become more educated with different beer styles that work well with Asian style food.

For your pairings, here are a few ideas that might wow your friends and family:

1) Grilled veggie sushi rolls (asparagus, red bell pepper, zucchini, carrot)

* I would go with a Belgium Wit/White, Saison or a Helles Bock as these brews have a nice complimentary flavor. They won’t overpower the grilled veggies, while adding to the complexity of the pairing with the orange peel/coriander in the Wit, the spicy esters in the Saison and the clean malt backbone of the Helles.
* You might want to try using Dogfish Head’s Palo Santo as a dipping sauce, as the umami in this beer can be a good substitute for soy sauce due to the complex wood barrel used to age this beer.
* Try adding a sour ale, like a Gueuze, Lambic or American Sour in the preparation for the sushi rice instead of the rice vinegar that is mixed with sugar and 'cut' into the cooked rice. This will strengthen the beer pairing, allowing the malt and fermentation of the brew to compliment the sushi.
2) Miso soup with tofu

* Miso is a fermented barley, rice or soybean product. This soup is comprised of complex flavors that are simple in nature and heightened with the addition of tofu, green onions and the dashi made with smoke fish flakes, giving some umami flavor to the dish. To pair with these flavors you can go with an English Brown Ale or Mild. The body of the brew has a touch of sweetness along with the malt complexity, creating a unique blend of flavors, including a touch of roast that enhances the fermented miso well.
3) Chicken marinated with soy sauce, ginger, scallions, oranges, and garlic

* Considering the combinations of soy sauce, ginger, orange, and garlic, this pairing becomes complicated. The flavors are strong individually, but together combine to cast a broad flavor range over the palate. To pair, a hoppy Pale Ale with lots of citrus notes would complement the flavors in the dish, while a Dunkelweizen or Hefeweizen with the essence of clove and banana would contrast and add its unique flavor. Poultry is a simple protein, and will readily absorb the flavors of the marinade. These beer choices are careful to not add more complexity to the flavor profile, but give respect to the overall dish.
4) Tri-Tip marinated with soy sauce, ginger, scallions, oranges, and garlic

* Beef has a trace flavor of iron and a richness that chicken does not, so the beer choices for this protein are different. Try an Altbier with this pairing, and because of the malt forward flavors, it will play up the umami from the soy sauce, especially if the meat is grilled. Another German style that would be unique with this pairing is a Roggenbier. The rye malt will leave a slight sourness and spiciness that when combined with the ginger and the garlic will enhance these flavors. The slight fruitiness in the finish will not increase the spicy notes and will clean the palate for another bite.
5) Green tea ice cream with a piece of dark chocolate and pistachio nut bark

* Ahhh green tea. An overall delicate tea with very interesting flavor. Bitterness and astringency are dominant along with slight floral hints and a nutty component. When you add in the element of pistachio nut bark, it will increase the nutty component while the dark chocolate pieces will further increase the nut and roast elements, slightly increasing the tannins from the unfermented leaves. I would go with a more delicate beer for this pairing, as a full-bodied, full-flavored brew will overshadow the delicate dessert. Try a Wheat wine, with its hints of vanilla, honey and light caramel, these flavors will broaden the dessert flavors and add new levels of complexity. They should embrace the coolness given from the ice cream that numbs the palate. Another style that would be interesting in this setting would be an Eisbock. The dried fruit undertones of raisin, plum, vanilla, apple and, banana, it again will add a counterpoint to the flavors in the dessert and not overpower them.
Combining these dishes with the above brews will not only pair well with the Asian style food of your menu, but also help your guests become more knowledgeable about beer offerings from around the globe and expose them to unique flavors that wine, sake and spirits do not have.

Happy Birthday and enjoy!

Danny from Florida asks:
I love what you do on the Brewing Network, and can't wait to taste one of your meals some time in the future. Hopefully there will be an NHC in a Southeastern state soon! Thanks for this opportunity to pick your brain over a couple of things!

My first question centers on brewing additives and by-products, and how they may be integrated into a meal. For instance, do those water salts we add to our all-grains beers, like gypsum or calcium chloride, modify the flavor or cooked meals similar to the way they affect beer flavor? Could they be used as flavor enhancers, similar to standard table salt? Additionally, in the quest for increased sustainability, what are some uses for spent grains, spent hops and yeast/trub cakes that are left behind in the bottom of the fermenter? Are there any food applications for any of these things (other than the old spent grain bread), or should they simply be composted after use. I know autolyzed yeast is a common ingredient in processed foods, hence my question.

One final question pertains to the growing of hops. It has been the experience of many gardeners in Florida that hops just don't grow very well in this state, rarely yielding sufficient quantities to be of use in brewing. Their quality is also sub-optimal due to the soils, climate and overall growing conditions down here. I have heard that the shoots of the hops as they emerge in the spring are similar to asparagus and considered a delicacy in some parts of the world. Do you have any recommendations on planting rhizomes for harvesting these shoots, how many rhizomes are needed for a small family meal, and how to cook them?

Thank you so much!

Sean answers:
You have asked some excellent questions. I too have been thinking and playing around with some of the other brewing ingredients that sometimes get forgotten and just thrown out, such as the grain, yeast slurry and hops.

I love salt, and my first comment to address your question is that salt does more than just add salinity to food. It also brings its unique mineral compound and texture to the dish. There are finishing salts that can add texture, color, trace minerals, and flavor (smokiness to herbs and citrus) to a finished dish by sprinkling them over the top of an item and not using them in the actual preparation of a dish. These salts differ than sea or kosher salt that should be used more as a cooking salt. However, using brewing salts/minerals in food preparation is tricky. First, if these minerals are overused, your palate can develop a chalky sensation. There are some breweries that overuse these brewing salts, and leave a harsh or gritty coating in your mouth.

Additionally, I am intrigued by how the water chemistry adds its unique seasoning to the finished product of a brew, complimenting the hops or the malt. In some cases it produces a beer that can't be replicated any other way. I have been playing with BeerSmith (homebrewing software) to create 1 gallon jugs of water that have been modified to resemble water profiles of certain areas. Then I use that water to make stocks, pasta dough, bread dough, and soup to understand how these water styles affect food through the cooking process. The addition of gypsum and calcium chloride also change the pH of the water, and this too should be taken under consideration when using them in food preparation. Use caution, as a little goes a long way here. Try experimenting with a control recipe with distilled water, then a second with the modified water and see if you can taste the difference. We all know that adding Burton-on-Trent salts to a British Pale creates a unique and classic flavor that can't be replicated by simply adding English malts and hops to a recipe.

In regards to the by-product of brewing ingredients, we seem to be thinking along the same lines. Often times, spent grain is given or sold to farmers from breweries as feed to farm animals. I have contacted Brewers Supply Group and asked for a breakdown of what is left in spent grain versus just the grain itself and was surprised at the answer. It led me to plan not only my brew day, but also my cooking day. If you like bread, sourdough or other more rustic/artisan styles, try substituting 1/4 - 1/5 of the flour with spent grain and then cutting back slightly on the water (the modified water can be used here), as the moisture content of the spent grain is hard to measure and keep at a constant. This will add a wonderful texture to the bread. Mix and knead this dough, placing in the refrigerator overnight and then baking the next day to slow the yeast down and create more flavors in the bread. I have a recipe for spent grain crackers that is very easy to make after a brew day, and the added spent grain becomes a strong element in the finished cracker. You can also use the spent grain in granola, adding texture and flavor to your breakfast. Another way to add more flavors to the spent grain is by adding some regular grain back into the granola or bread; even just a few teaspoons or tablespoons will add to the complexity and flavor, especially if using a caramel or kilned malt. Another breakfast favorite that works with spent grain is oatmeal. Add some frozen spent grain (to stop any spoilage) or dried spent grain (place onto a parchment or lined sheet tray in a thin layer and place into a 200˚F oven for several hours until dried) to your oatmeal, along with a touch of freshly cracked malt or DME/LME to create a wonderful and unique brewers breakfast. The frozen or dried spent grain can also be used in pancakes, waffles and quick breads (muffins/loaves). Just think about what type of grains were mixed in the style of beer you made and how those flavors will be incorporated to the final dish.

For spent hops, I have yet to find a way to use these, as much of their flavor has been sacrificed in the brewing process and the only thing that is really left is the leafy material that isn't very tasty. I would suggest listening to my podcast for more ideas and techniques on this topic.

Spent yeast is another story. If you are a clean brewer and dump the trub, the yeast can be re-used for another batch of your homebrew. Using this yeast to make bread, flatbread or other yeast items is definitely possible. The trick is not to have a lot of hopped trub mixed into the yeast slurry that can be found when a brewer uses pelletized hops and not using a whirlpool or a hop sack, thus keeping these bitter elements out of the yeast. The other consideration that I can share from lots of R&D is that each stain of yeast that is used in the brew house is different than instant active yeast from a packet. Depending upon the strain, the amount used and time needed to raise the loaf of bread it will be longer than the commercial yeast equivalent. You can add wort to replace water and to help feed the yeast and speed up the process, but the brewers yeast has not been modified or mutated to be fed a starch (flour), and will take longer and the results are not always consistent. Vegemite, produced in Australia, is a yeast by-product spread with a very unique flavor. Not everyone’s cup of tea for a spread on toast. However, you can take a hop free yeast slurry and cook it down a little, and then add this to soups, stocks and other sauces to give a 'meaty' and 'beefy' flavor that is different than adding bouillon or other flavor builders.

You can always compost the spent grain, hops and yeast, and mix in other organic materials to create a very rich soil. I will warn that the aroma of spent grain and yeast slurry decomposing in
the backyard can become rather strong. If you have ever visited a brewery with bins awaiting a farmer’s pick up, you can attest that this is a very strong aroma. Not always as pleasant as roses and herds in the rest of the garden.

For your question on hop shoots, yes they are a delicacy. During spring in Belgium, the first hop shoots are harvested and cooked much like white asparagus and served at many fine restaurants. The trick to doing this at home is two-fold. First, you have to have enough to serve your guests. I would suggest eight plants for a small intimate dinner. Second, once the hop rhizomes are planted, cover the soil with straw or moss, keeping the direct sunlight off the first bines that break ground. The idea is to keep the shoots white and keeping the sun from turning them green. This will keep them tender. The shoots should be harvested when they are about 2-4 inches long. To prepare them, remove the leaves (as they can be spiny) and sauté in a little butter for just a few minutes over medium heat. A few years ago, Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewery let me pick his first shoots for a Belgium Beer Dinner at the Toronado in San Francisco. I created a Delirium Tremens Sabayon by whisking 4 egg yolks with about a 1/4 cup of the Delirium, adding a touch of salt over a double boiler. I whisked the mix for 2-4 minutes, until it tripled in volume and became a frothy, slightly thick sauce. Be careful not to over-mix as it can curdle. The trick is to whisk and watch the yolks cook slowly. I poured this sauce over the sautéed hop shoots and served over a beer poached fish. This is a tasty seasonal treat that really can only happen once a year.

Thanks for the great questions and sharing your ideas and thoughts.

Andy asks:
I can't remember where this restaurant is located (we were traveling), but I remember they included a garnish of grilled lemon, orange and grapefruit wedges that was wonderful. Each fruit retained its distinct flavor but had a smoky "deeper, darker" layer to it, which I’m guessing was from the caramelized sugars?

I would love these flavors in a Belgian beer. What are your thoughts about the flavors grilled fruits can add to a beer?

Thanks for making yourself available to the homebrew community.

Sean answers:
Grilled citrus is a wonderful addition to any meal in replacement of a slice of citrus on the plate. By adding the heat from the grill (along with any smoky or charcoal flavors) can impart a very special flavor that can enhance any meal.

I really like your idea of using this grilled citrus in a brew. I can totally see a Belgian Wit with oranges (navel, blood or Valencia), tangerines (honey, clementine or mandarin) or grapefruit (ruby, pink or pomelo) being a nice accompaniment. My recommendation would be to halve, then grill over an almond, cherry, apple, or pecan wood over direct heat for 3-4 minutes on the cut side. Then flip, and grill on the skin side for about a minute. Move to the side of the grill without direct heat and cover to allow the citrus to pick up the smoke from the wood. Some moisture will evaporate, thereby condensing the flavors of the citrus. Add these to the last five minutes of the boil. This same technique would also work well with a saison, blonde or even a hefeweizen as well. The hard thing with citrus and this technique in particular, is the amount. Citrus doesn't always contain the same brix or sugar content and will certainly have different moisture levels and sizes. You may have to experiment with the grill time and temperature of the grill. Although, by adding these flavors to a brew, one could create a very special summertime treat.

Great idea, I might have to steal this in an upcoming menu or brew...

Denny asks:
Thanks for answering our questions! I'd like to know if you have any thoughts on great flavor combinations that we may not normally think of or expect to taste. Both in flavors in beers and in pairing beer and food, what are some of your favorites that you think more people need to be aware of?

Thank you so much!

Sean answers:
Great question. Flavor combinations are so unique and really are the foundation of so many great dishes and beers. If you stop and examine a dish, many start with some base ingredients, whether it be onions, peppers, garlic, ginger, or peppercorns to build a flavor profile. The important thing to think about is how these ingredients are blended together and the technique used to bring out the flavors.

This theory applies to beer as well. For most recipes, the base ingredients are water, malt (kilned different ways to achieve different flavors), hops, and yeast. This is also where the complexity of beer becomes unique. Look at a hefeweizen with the banana and clove component coming from the Bavarian yeast strain, a saison with its red wine yeast cousin with ester and spicy notes, a stout with its heavily roasted grains, or a pilsner with the clean yeast profile that allows the noble hops to shine. How we treat the brew can bring out flavors that are unique and special. If you take into consideration the many different cuisines from across the globe, you can find many unique flavor combinations that could be re-created in a beer. A word of caution however, when creating a brew with unique flavors or ingredients, you should always ask one simple question, "Will I be able to drink a pint, growler or keg of this beer?"

I recently had a saison style brew that was made with Japanese Yuzu, a unique citrus that has undertones of lime, lemon, tangerine, and orange. This combination was delicate and thirst quenching. I also had a Star Anise Chocolate Stout that had just enough of the anise flavor without overwhelming the palate. The anise was dancing with the roasted, earthy, intense fudgy flavors from the chocolate, which served as the foundation of the rich and creamy stout. These beers tasted great, as the addition of the other non-native beer ingredients were added with a light and delicate touch that expands the flavor bandwidth. A heavy hand can leave the palate confused, overwhelmed or muted and muddled. It is not just the idea of marrying ingredients, but how they are layered into a beer to give it complex flavor that is complimenting the base ingredients, not becoming so strong that it takes over the taster’s palate.

Exploring the idea of flavor combinations even further, think about what has worked in food and beers and those classic flavor pairings. There is a sense of comfort with nostalgic flavors and textures that can trigger memories. The hard part is finding that equilibrium of flavors that compliment each other.

With the above pre-text, here are some ideas I would love to see introduced into the flavor profile of a beer. Remember, to create synergy in the beer you need to not only think about the flavors, but the beer style that will support those flavors. Here are a few thoughts:

* Green tea and tangerine
* Dark chocolate, chili and blood orange
* Smoked heirloom tomato and basil
* Bacon and maple syrup
* Strawberry and coriander
* Pineapple and apricot
* Chocolate, caramel and sea salt


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