Pairing is a craft for which I haven’t much talent. I’m a fellow who tends to keep my relatively pedestrian appreciation of good food separate from my considerably more refined appreciation of beer. I employ a pretty unsophisticated calculus when it comes to pairing beer with food. “What beer would pair well with this curry?” you might ask me. “Uh…that’s spicy, right? Wow. Maybe, uh, something…not…spicy? Like, opposite? Like a light lager?”
Yeah. Lucky you for asking.
That always seems to be how it is – choose a meal and scramble for the right alcoholic accompaniment. But how about you start with a style of beer, and then ask yourself what food would best go with it? Here's an unexpected answer that's always right: pie.
I was up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire recently for the first annual Beer & Pie Social, a new tradition that coincided with National Pie Day, January 23rd. Beer guru Charlie Papazian founded National Pie Day back in 1975 (it sounds like something a “beer guru” would come up with, doesn’t it?), and it was just a matter of time before the relationship between pie and beer was consummated.
Portsmouth Brewery is a brewpub owned by the great people who bring us Smuttynose beer. Their annual release of the world famous "Kate the Great" Russian Imperial Stout draws throngs every year, but their regular slate of beers rivals that of any great craft brewer. So when they set out to make pies to complement four of their beers, I just had to be there.
Pairing #1: Fatayer Spinach Pie and Portsmouth Wild Thang
A curveball from the start, the Fatayer is more of a spinach-stuffed pastry than a slice of pie. But the earthiness of the moist spinach filling and the sesame seeds was a perfect complement to the rice notes of Wild Thang. The wild rice gives this ale a rich malt middle that matched the spinach, but the beer's slight sweet fruitiness and satisfying Sterling hop bite also fit the pairing on another level.
Pairing #2: British Pork Pie and Portsmouth Winter Rye Ale
A pie straight out of my childhood, this one could best be described as a chilled “sausage pie.” The well-spiced pork filling was enveloped in a flaky, buttery crust, evoking thoughts of a banger Wellington, if you will. The grainy mustard and tart cornichons that accompanied the pie were met by the bready Winter Rye Ale. It tamed the disparate elements of the plate and brought the flavors full-circle with a malt sweetness punctuated by the unmistakable rye bite.
Pairing #3: Cherry and Burnt Sugar Tart and Portsmouth Flanders Red Maude
The back and forth of this plate was between the sweet custard of the tart and the big sour twang of the Maude. The cherries gave the tart their share of, well, tartness, but Maude was a big exclamation point at the end of the slice. While many sour ales derive their tartness from the yeasts and bacteria used in the brewing process, I was assured by Tyler Jones, Assistant Brewer at Portsmouth, that the sour character in Maude was brought about primarily by a sour mashing process, separate from the actual fermentation. Suffice it to say the burnt cherry tart was the answer to a question I’ve been asking about the recent resurgence of sour ales: why? Okay, I get it.
Pairing #4: Chocolate-Espresso Pie and Portsmouth Milk Stout
Okay, if a cow could hug your tongue, this is what it would taste like. Wait, gross, scratch that. This tastes much, much better than that. The beauty of this pairing is that either element standing alone may have been too much, but the richness of the towering chocolate pie with the specially espresso-infused (and nitro-poured) Milk Stout resulted in a mocha-lacto blast that was completely over the top. The pie itself may have been a bit on the dry side, but the milk stout poured as a creamy, coffee wash that locked arms with the bittersweet chocolate of the pie for a big finish to a heady pairing endeavor.
The evening concluded with a surprise appearance by the elusive "Kate." She had been aging for a year, and presented a hugely complex dark fruit and roasted malt profile. The year has apparently been good to the girl, as the aging of the RIS has given her a mellow alcohol warmth that wrapped around a figgy, plum body with notes of dark chocolate. This was my first taste of the legend, but on March 7th, I’ll be back at Portsmouth for the full spectacle of the beer's official release.