Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Today's column: The quest for beer with food from wine country


They're lands of long, hot and dry summers tempered by breezes from the sea.

And they're lands of incredible food — dishes dominated by intensely-flavored herbs, meats and cheeses.

Ah, the sun-soaked shores of the Mediterranean, where the olive trees don't offer a lot of shade, but do provide plenty of oil to flavor the cooking.

The arid, sunny climate that is the source of so much good cooking might inspire one to reach for a cool brew, but finding the right beer to pair with these powerful foods can present a challenge.

Plus there's the fact that the Med is the cradle of Europe's wine culture. It was wine, not ale after all, that Odysseus used to outwit the giant Cyclops and while sailing that dangerous sea centuries ago.

But that doesn't mean the right brew isn't out there, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed alongside a heap of hummus or a load of grilled lamb skewers.

When selecting a beer to enjoy with a meal there are at least a couple different strategies: pick something brewed in the region that inspired the food, or go with something that plays off the food's unique flavors, regardless of where it's brewed.

That second approach is suggested by the beer-food pairing guide published by the Brewers Association, a trade group of American craft brewers. Lamb figures more prominently in Mediterranean meals than other meats. Its stronger flavor is a good match for the higher-alcohol content and robust bitterness of double or imperial India pale ales, according to the pairing guide. There's also British old or strong ales, with bold flavors that some describe as fruity or raisiny. Then there's Scotch ale, also called "wee heavy," with sweeter, maltier characteristics. (Creativity in procurement may be called for, as all of the above styles tend toward higher alcohol contents that are outlawed in Alabama). Lacking any of those, a sweet amber lager like Flying Dog's Old Scratch or a somewhat bitter pale ale like Sierra Nevada's ubiquitous offering might do the trick. Both are available locally.

The other tactic would be to pick a brand name brewed in the country that supplied your feta-festooned salad or chickpea puree. Italian dishes could call for a Peroni Nastro Azzuro, a standard pale lager on local shelves. Finding something brewed under any other Mediterranean flag is a tall task, though. The good news is that pale lagers are the dominant style in much of Europe, and one of the most popular here, as well. That leaves plenty of suitable substitutes, such as Stella Artois, Grolsch, Steinlager or Harp among the imports, or just about anything on the shelf from the well-known domestic brands (Sierra Nevada's seasonal Summerfest Lager is a fine alternative, and was still on some local shelves last week).

Of course, if you have the means and the vacation time, there's the option of going straight to the source, trying the local food and the local beer on an odyssey of your own. Like the ancient Greek hero, you never know where the journey might lead you.