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Ask the Experts: Sean Paxton

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Ryan from Colorado asks:
Any thoughts on a beer dinner in Denver around GABF this year? I live in Denver and would love to experience a Sean Paxton dinner.

Now to the food questions. I do quite a bit of cooking (all the cooking for my household) and manage to pull off most recipes, but am by no means anywhere near a professional (just a house husband who loves his food and beer). I have some homebrew friends coming over for a beer dinner and wanted to see if you would be willing to give any input on my idea for a recipe. I am planning on making a boeuf bourguignon, using the Julia Child style recipe, but replacing the red wine with barley wine. I am thinking of using the 2011 Sierra Nevada Bigfoot for the barley wine. I was also thinking of making a hop-butter and using that to cook the mushrooms and onions, and possibly using some hop-butter with mashed potatoes for plating.

So the question is will the young barley wine and hop-butter play well together. I figured the concentrated barley wine sweetness would balance the hop bitterness in the barley wine well. I don’t expect to get much bitterness extraction in the hop-butter, just flavor and aroma.

Also I was wondering if you had pairing suggestions other than a barley wine. Sadly, I don’t have any aged barley wine to pair with this, but perhaps a Belgian dark, or something similar might go well. I have a homebrew chocolate stout on tap that may be nice with this, but that is what we will be drinking, so I was hoping for something special as a pairing (my local liquor store is well stocked with craft beer).

I look forward to more episodes on the Beer Network and hope to try one of your multi-course beer dinners one day. Nothing is better than a long drawn out meal of great food, especially with good beer and good people to appreciate it with.

Sean answers:
Dinner in Denver during GABF, hmmm, interesting idea. No plans today, but we will see.

As for your cooking question, I see a few things to consider. On the boeuf bourguignon idea, this dish is usually made with a red wine like a Bordeaux, Burgundy or Chianti. Using a very hoppy brew like Sierra Nevada Bigfoot will totally change the classic flavor profile of the original dish. Wine tannins have a different flavor profile than hop bitterness, not to mention the lack of fruity undertones that the wine brings to the dish. One of the issues I have had with cooking with barleywine is the IBU level in this style of beer. As most barleywines are full of flavor, the amount of hops used to balance out the sweetness from all the barley malt create a wonderful brew to drink, yet cause issues when cooking with them. The bitterness increases when you make a beer reduction because the hop oils condense as the alcohol and water evaporate during the cooking process. This leaves more bitterness and less sweetness as the dish cooks. This bitterness evolves from a pleasant, quaffable hop flavor to a sharp bitterness that is out of balance.

If you want something close to the classic Julie Child dish, I would use a Rodenbach Grand Cru, Jolly Pumpkin’s La Roja or a Flanders Red style ale. This style of beer has some vinegar notes, along with some dried fruit complexity and a dry finish, with minimal hop bitterness. These flavors would work well with the original recipe’s ingredients. With the onions, bacon, beef, and mushrooms, the addition of the beer will enhance the dish and not distract from it, adding other flavor elements that clash on the palate.

Hop-butter is a condiment/ingredient that I continue to explore and experiment with in my cooking. When I create hop-butter I infuse the hop flavor into the butter using indirect heat (water bath, or double boiler) versus an open heat source to keep the bitterness to a minimum. I would suggest using the butter as a finishing component to the dish to add richness and flavor versus directly cooking your mushrooms and onions in the butter which might lead to excess bitterness in your dish.

I can see adding a barleywine to mashed potatoes, as it is a great way to add flavor and not really “cook” the beer. It’s a good compensation for the bitterness when this type of beer is reduced down. I have a recipe for Roasted Garlic IPA Mashed Potatoes and the barleywine could replace the IPA. The sweetness of the roasted garlic works well to add balance to the bitterness of the beer, while bringing out the flavor of the hops in the dish.

I really appreciate your questions and love the idea of taking a traditional dish and exploring how to personalize it for your friends and family. I encourage you to keep experimenting!

Ron asks:
What recipes and/or techniques do you recommend for grilling with beer? Do you have any favorite beers you pair with BBQ? From the citrusy notes of a quenching weissbier to the roasted flavors of a porter or stout, there is a broad spectrum of beer tastes suited for smoke.

This is a wonderful question that brings up lots of great discussion about pairing beer with food. I tend to look at what the food is, how it is cooked and what flavor attributes it picks up from the cooking process. BBQ is unique and oh so tasty, and the pairings are equally interesting and complex at the same time. Cooking with wood has many advantages, one being the flavor from the tree adding a wonderful component to the food on the grill or in the smoker. Using apple, cherry, fig, peach, maple, apricot, plum, or nectarine wood chips adds a sweeter, mellower smoke flavor to the food. Depending on the type of tree, the smoke flavor can range from a nutty, sweet, soft, or even perfume-like smoke flavor. These woods are great to use with pork, poultry, fish, and seafood, as the more mellow smoke is less dominating and easier to control in the final dish. Also, these woods are perfect to add layers of smoke complexity to a food. By alternating the type of wood each hour, it will pick up accents from each variety.

The more aggressive woods used in smoking are acacia, black walnut, hickory, oak (including oak barrel staves from wine, whiskey and brandy barrels), white oak, and mesquite. These woods have can have some bitterness that comes from the smoke’s astringent nature and the flavors range from strong to intense. The subtleness is mostly lost with these woods as the dominant smoke character will overshadow the delicate nuances of simple flavored proteins and cheeses. These woods work well when combined with other softer flavored woods to create a balance smoked flavor. A strong full-flavored rub with lots of spice and pepper undertones, layered with sugar can also create a balance. With the understanding of the flavor components of the wood selected for the BBQ, a cook can tweak the cooking time or combination of wood, to adjust and control the amount of smoke flavor added to a dish.

The pairing aspect becomes much broader when taking into consideration the wood type, cooking time and selected protein. I love a rauchbier because of its smoky and spice qualities, which is offset by a sweet malt backbone and a undertone of a meaty, jerky flavor. This beer would pair well with some grilled meats. A smoked porter has more malty and roasted elements and can have different degrees of smoke flavor depending upon the type of smoked malt and the amount used. Take caution when thinking about the BBQ pairing because the smoke on smoke can overwhelm the pairing and your palate.

A scotch ale or wee heavy, with a sweet caramel, toffee and slight smoke nuances would add balance to a heavily smoked piece of BBQ and might be too aggressive of a pairing choice for a grilled selection. Another angle of pairing would be to use the roast coffee, chocolate, nutty, and earthy (umami) approach that many styles of beers bring to your palate. Think of an amber, brown ale, stout (Irish, imperial or oatmeal), porter (American or English), German alt, schwarzbier, or even red ale styles can complement the smoke elements while adding a unique malt sweetness that adds a contrasting juxtaposition to the match.

When looking at the citrus flavors in many beers, the citrus flavor is usually coming from either hops or the addition of citrus (zest, fresh or dried) or coriander. This leaves a distinct citrus element on your palate and creates an interesting pairing with smoke. The lighter smoked foods like grilled vegetables, fish or poultry, will add brightness to the pairing when combined with a West Coast style American Pale Ale, Pale Ale, IPA, or in some cases a Double IPA. An issue might arise with the alcohol percentage, as the heat of the beer’s ABV might dilute the subtle delicate flavors of the food. Barleywines, wheat wines and dopplebocks will work with the stronger, smokier foods.

Wheat beers can work with a smoky BBQ, but the key is having the right smoke or grill flavors. Some of the German styles that are heavy with clove or banana can create some strange pairings and aren't my favorite. Dunkelweizen and hefeweizen lend themselves to more delicate foods like a grilled chicken breast or grilled zucchini. The clove flavor has a phenolic attribute that comes from the yeast, and doesn't always mix well with an astringent smoke flavor. I like a softer smoke character when pairing with these beers.

In the lager category, Vienna, Oktoberfest/Märzen, bock and other dark lagers, add some maltiness to the pairing and have a lower hop bitterness that makes these beers more neutral and work with food easier.

With these pairings the real trick to a 'perfect pairing' is finding the balance between the food and the beer. The combination of the right beer to the right food should elevate the combination to a 1 + 1 = 3. Even beers within a style in today's brews (both home and commercial beers) are pushing the boundaries of the style guidelines. Each beer we brew, we can add or modify the flavor profile with the addition of different grains, unique ingredients or flavorful hops. This strikes the notion of starting with the beer first, then thinking about what to cook and how to season it. Think of smoke as a seasoning, just like the rub, and the brine or the side dishes served with your entrée. Using some of the above mentioned beers, substitute the liquid in the entrée (stock, water) with a beer to enhance the flavor of the dish and will allow the pairing to be a more natural fit. When adding a beer to a dish, think of that beer as an ingredient. Dissect the flavors in the beer: start with the malt to hop balance, and the first, second and third flavors that hit your palate. Then think of the style and what that beer will go with and how to incorporate those flavors to compliment or contrast the flavors in the dish. This will add a level of sophistication to the pairing by not only designing your dish around the beer, but embracing the beer’s flavor profile and using it in your recipe.


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