Sure, if the coupling becomes greater than the sum of its parts

Twenty years ago, when managing the Ebbitt Room at the Virginia Hotel in Cape May, I was tasked with pairing beers to the chef’s creations for a Belgian beer dinner. When it came time for dessert, I was perplexed. There was something instinctively wrong about putting beer with dessert. I mean, beer can be dessert, but, drinking a beer with a dessert? Heresy.

As I researched Belgian beers, I discovered particularly fruity, low-alcohol styles, such as lambic, that have derivative brews known as geuze, kriek, mars, faro and fruit. Sometimes brewed with actual fruit and wild yeasts, to my uneducated palate they had all the appeal of an adult Frank’s soda with booze in it. Cherry kriek, raspberry lambic and plum geuze were candidates for the tasting. We settled on the raspberry lambic with a linzer torte, but I still wasn’t sold. All these years later, I realize it wasn’t the quality of the beer at issue, but my stubbornness to give it a chance. One million Belgians can’t be wrong.

As the micro-beer boom of the late ‘90s caught on, it was the various styles of Belgian, French and German beers that these new bohemian breweries were emulating. Not all of them were a success, but for die-hard beer drinkers, finding a new brew to wake up the palate was exciting.

New-styled farmhouse ales and IPAs from California, Oregon and New York State breweries began to catch on, in the traditional 750ml format. High-alcohol, almost wine-like styles, like those of Chimay and Duvel from Belgium, gained popularity. A little-known cult brewer aptly named Rogue from Oregon began bottling stout and porter, the darker, more robust beer, with chocolate and coffee. You might say they were the first of extreme-brewers, a title now held by Delaware-based juggernaut Dogfish Head. The thing is, just like Americanized versions of European wines, these beers were brewed for the American palate. And people drank them up.

Most micro-breweries cashed out to large corporations like Anheuser-Busch, and the backlash is what we now call the craft beer craze. According to the Colorado-based Brewers Association, an American craft brewer is defined by three criteria: it must be small, independent, and traditional. Even deeper in the definition is that it must produce no more than 6 million barrels annually. Other rules define percentage of ownership by individuals compared to corporations, and use of natural, traditional ingredients, such as barley.

Focusing sometimes on only four or five styles, craft breweries began cropping up like mushrooms overnight, selling just within a county or two of their locations. Specially lined cans that reduced that tinny flavor made it cool to package and drink out of cans, adding a nostalgic touch to the trend. Going back to the roots of great beer, the styles of Europe were mimicked once again. If a style failed, the loss was written off as a kooky idea. But in many cases, the more outrageous the flavor or idea, the more coveted the brew.

And so small-batch brews like Wells Banana Bread beer, Short’s Brewing’s “S’more Stout” and Southern Tier “Crème Brûlée”—a curious beverage brewed with vanilla beans—were born. Also popular were fruit beers made more in the style of herbal tea, like blueberry ale and stone fruit cider.

I’ve since returned to my days of pairing beer and food, this time as chef. And I am faced once again with the conundrum of recommending a beer to consume with dessert. In order to do this successfully and not feel like I was jumping on a bandwagon, I wanted to lay down some ground rules. Here they are:

  • The beer must be drinkable on its own. That is to say, if I don’t want to drink 12 ounces of Abita Strawberry Harvest Beer (and I don’t), then putting it with dessert is a bad idea.

  • The beer, for me at least, has to be a certain ABV percentage, or alcohol by volume. Too little, for example, and a beer paired with dessert could wind up tasting like one of those flavored sodas from Belgium. Too much alcohol and you can have the sensation of being too full. A sweet spot ABV for me is between 4-7 percent for beer that works best with food.

   • Fruit, spice and sugar in a beer need to be nuances, not the main attraction. Beers that bonk you over the head with blueberry and lemon can be fun to drink in the summer sun, but in pairing with a dessert it’s about balance. Likewise, there are some decent pumpkin beers out there, but most are more akin to scented candles and Starbucks lattes than hop- and malt-driven session beers. If it tastes like dessert, then drink it for dessert, not with.

If any of this sounds familiar to wine lovers skilled in the art of food and wine pairing, it’s because it’s the same concept. Both food and beer must stand on its own, but a truly successful pairing emerges when the coupling becomes greater than the sum of its parts: a new level, a new taste previously undiscovered—that “Aha!” moment.
Trends or no, I’ll always enjoy beer best right out of the bottle. But a recent pairing I could be proud to put my name next to is a chocolate English toffee brioche bread pudding with an unorthodox 50/50 blend of my own, using Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout with the Wells Banana Bread Ale. It adheres to all the rules I laid out about pairing and it’s a slam dunk on the “wow” factor.

Robert Lhulier is executive chef at the University & Whist Club in Wilmington.

Chef Rob Lhulier
Chef Robert Lhulier is currently executive chef of the venerable University and Whist Club of Wilmington. In his early career, he took the “path less traveled” approach to cooking and hospitality through experiences as a musician, artist, educator, entrepreneur, writer and DJ, the common thread being the love of the arts. Robert is a dedicated and fierce volunteer for various causes supporting his home state of Delaware. He has traveled the world and experienced the unique and vibrant cultures of culinary capitals, yet it is Wilmington he fondly calls home.