I recently had one of those family trips that makes parents remember why a family trip is actually a very different thing than a “vacation.”
For March break, my wife and I took our five-year-old son to Florida for a week that was plagued by myriad maladies, the highlights of which included temperatures cooler than many parts of Canada, bed bugs, half of our party departing early due to an actual death in the family, and, perhaps worst of all, a full day elbowing mouth-breathers and hemorrhaging money at the monument to consumerism and unchecked labour conditions that is Disney World.
It was, in the parlance of our times, an absolute shit show.
Predictably, throughout the week I occasionally sought respite in a pint of beer and some food and so, if there were a silver lining to the chaos of that family trip, it was something of a revelation about the simple joys of pairing good beer and good food—particularly that of the less-fancy variety.
By-the-pound shrimp to the rescue
One overcast afternoon, for example, when my wife and son had opted to head up to our room, I grabbed a solo bite at a nearby bar/restaurant, the charmingly named “Beach Bucket.” It promised a decent selection of Florida craft beer and menu items that included peeled shrimp priced by the pound. I figured my lunch would either be transcendent or the story I would later tell when people asked, “Jesus, how did you get a parasite?” Given the week we’d had thus far, I rolled the dice.
Thankfully, my bet was on the money.
My crispy, warm, golden, fried shrimp served in a plastic basket alongside thinly sliced, made-in-house, potato chips—paired with a pint of Cigar City Brewing’s Jai Alai IPA—proved a near biblical experience that day, verging close to erasing my troubling thoughts of the infestation of insects waiting to literally feast on my blood as I slept that night.
It wasn’t a complicated dish—it was fried shrimp I had doused in Cholula hot sauce from a sticky bottle—but with that beer, it was perfect. It wasn’t exactly a new idea either, and certainly one that I had explored unofficially in-depth previously, but beer, I realized once again, is really, really great with trashy food.
Obviousness aside, I spent much of the rest of the week experimenting with the concept and was able to replicate the blissful experience with varying success using Mexican food, fistfuls of chips in my room, and fried chicken from the sort of artery-clogging franchise restaurants that make America great.
The case for comfort
But it turns out, there actually is some science behind my joy of putting down pints alongside trashy food. Beer is uniquely suited to cutting through heavy flavours like fat and spice.
Jesse Valins is the executive chef at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Tavern and he has spent 20 years in restaurants. He’s also a co-founder and partner at Merit Brewing Co. in Hamilton. A self-proclaimed “flavour geek,” he too is a fan of the occasional low-high combo like the chicken balls with martinis or pork scratchings and Greene King Gold IPA that recently made his Instagram feed, @snacktimusprime.
“The best pairings are often simple, regardless of beverage or what it’s accompanying,” he says. “All of the examples you mentioned, though different, have salt and fat in common. All beer has some level of carbonation, and those bubbles help to lift fat off the tongue. Bitterness helps to counterbalance richness as well. At the same time, salt dulls our perception of bitterness, so when you drink beer with salty foods it can make the beer taste rounder and sweeter. We’re hardwired from birth to like sweet things so that just works.”
Beer, of course, also works very well with more complex dishes. I have been to many an event that tried vigorously to make the case for beer paired with fine cuisine. I have even opined pretentiously on the subject, once (pre-child and pre-mortgage) dedicating an entire ridiculous month to exploring the topic of better food and beer pairings, interviewing cicerones, seeking out restaurants that put care into their cellar program and writing about the need to elevate beer’s status.
Do beer and wine really need to compete?
I’d like to think I am far less self-important now, and so while I still believe that beer is as up to the task as wine, I often find the whole search for beer and gastronomic enlightenment a little fucking exhausting.
Maybe it’s because I’m getting older or less fussy or maybe it’s because the rigours of schlepping one’s family through the Magic Kingdom create an immediate need to cram alcohol and fat-heavy animal protein into one’s suckhole, but I find I don’t actually want to hear about the delicate interplay of an acidic gueuze with oily seafood anymore.
When did beer get so precious? I’d just like a nice beer and some satisfying snacks now, please.
Vallins, despite having more patience for the task and a decidedly more sophisticated palate than I do, seems to understand the draw of beer’s apparent simplicity. “I love salty snacks, and beer is usually what I’ve got on hand ready to drink,” he says. “Committing to cracking open a bottle of wine so you can do damage to a sack of Lays doesn’t happen nearly as often. Maybe a sparkling wine would work just as well, or even better in some cases, but I think that just speaks to the nature of both of those beasts. It doesn’t necessarily mean that beer was specifically made to pair with trash, but beer is definitely suited for snacking: it has an affordable price, is easily accessible, and comes in an ideal portion size.”
And whether I’m at home on the couch, watching a game with a bowl of pretzels, or scratching bug bites and recovering from a Mickey Mouse wallet-biopsy over a basket of something deep fried, that sounds just about right to me.
Guilty pleasure beer and food pairing suggestions
These are sweet spots between decadent and delicious.
Vallins recommends grilled cheese sandwiches made with Wonder Bread and Kraft Singles paired with a märzen or Vienna lager. “These beers are full of caramelized flavour and taste like toasted bread, or bread crusts. Pairing them with a grilled cheese, for me, makes the grilled cheese taste more like itself.” Try Dream City by Hamilton’s Fairweather or the märzen from Beau’s.
My favourite summertime meal is two hot dogs and a lager (a.k.a. The Two Dogger Lager Combo). Top your dogs generously with classic yellow mustard and this dish rivals any sauterne and foie gras offering on the planet. The fatty, salty, juiciness of a hot dog with a touch of tang from mustard pairs perfectly with the palate cleansing and effervescent freshness of a good helles. Go for the helles from Toronto’s Muddy York or the one from Wellington. Resist the urge to include a fancy bun. The whiter and softer the better.
Lauren Richard is an Advanced Cicerone and bar manager at Hotmess Tex Mex in Toronto. She favours some malt-forward beers to balance heat. “Junky food is often highly salted, which, for me, accentuates malt character, and can help in certain instances where people can’t take the heat. If someone is having an adverse reaction to spice, I’ll give them the brown ale from Anderson Craft Ales. It’s a touch lower in carbonation, so no aggravation for the already prickled tongue, and the malt sweetness can be soothing.”
Dill Pickle Chips
For perhaps the most common pairing on Earth—chips and beer—there is something magical about pairing dill pickle chips with a hop-forward pale ale. There are subtle dill notes to a handful of hop varieties, like Sorachi Ace, and a symbiosis of like flavours when you get the right beer. In contrast, the piney bitterness of hoppy beer acts like a palate reset, working with carbonation to cleanse between salty bites so you never overload on either flavour and can more easily over-indulge on both the chips and beer. I like Lays Dill Pickle and Canuck pale ale from Etobicoke’s Great Lakes Brewery.