What was once a week-long celebration of Grand Rapids' beer has evolved into Beer Month GR, a full 29 days worth of sipping, tasting and savoring the craft of beer in Grand Rapids. This month-long celebration of beer runs February 15 – March 15. And, because beer goes so well with food, the 5th annual Cool Brews. Hot Eats. will run during the same timeframe. Cool Brews. Hot Eats. (CBHE) doesn't stop at pairing beer with food. Local chefs also cook with beer to enrich food's flavors. I spoke to Garry Boyd, the "ringleader" at BarFly Ventures, about how local chefs are approaching Beer Month GR and Cool Brews. Hot Eats. in the downtown neighborhood.
Grand Rapids Brewing Company in downtown Grand Rapids.
BarFly Ventures, the parent company of Grand Rapids Brewing Company, Stella's and HopCat, have a history of creating beer-inspired menus. Boyd remarked that while many Grand Rapids establishments have always had good beer, "now there's an awareness that pairing can take both beer and food to the next level."
This year, many of the participating restaurants are cooking with the beer as well as serving it alongside, which allows the flavors to resonate in every part of the meal. As Boyd says, a pairing experience should allow the guest to leave off on a bite or a sip and be equally satisfied. A successful pairing is, according to Boyd: "Alchemy: the paired food and drink together taste better than just the individual components."
Finding a Successful Pairing
But how does a chef hit on a successful pairing? Since I was new to pairing, I wanted to know how chefs come up with items like Boyd was describing: banana curry cauliflower with a fig rum-barrel aged porter or French onion soup with gruyere and an imperial stout. For Boyd, being in such a beer-rich environment like Grand Rapids means, "pairing is an ongoing conversation between the brewer, the marketing and distribution team, and the chef." The chef can start with either the food or the beer, and must simply decide if the flavors incorporated should be complementary or contrasting.
Pairing 101 teaches this: fat and grease in food is a brewer's best friend. It is the fatty flavors that most commonly brighten and highlight a balance of malt and hops in the beer. This is why you'll see pizza and beer or burgers and beer as such a common combination – it works!
Stella's main CBHE menu offering during Beer Month 2017 will be a cheeseburger soup, a hearty homage to Stella's stuffed burgers, which are recognized as some of the best in the country! This soup will even include blue cheese and diced pickles, and will be paired with an IPA so that the hop profile stands out against the ground beef and cheese. "The expectation for our chefs is to have fun with this assignment: We're bars serving simple bar food, but with a lot of culinary talent."
Beer and burgers: a classic pairing. Photo credit: Experience Grand Rapids
Discovering Your Own Favorites
Boyd's recommendation to any enthusiast trying to decide where to eat this month is to "go for something weird, unique, or interesting-sounding. If it piques your interest or makes you curious, TRY IT!" Cool Brews. Hot Eats. menus are ready for your perusal. Even if you can't make it to Beer City USA during Beer Month, try pairing on your own. According to Boyd, beer is approachable for pairing. As you eat and drink, determine what flavors you like, whether it's fruity, smoky, malty, roasty, citrusy, or any combination therein. Then look for those highlights on every menu. Your palette will grow and change as you try new things. If you still want to play it safe, one year-round pairing you can always count on is crack fries and Beer Right Meow, an IPA brewed by HopCat. Happy tasting!