Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Pairing Food With Beer

By Jay Brooks
Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009 at 2:14 pm in On Beer.

Today we kick off the last of the new monthly features by a variety of well-known beer personalities around the Bay Area. The first Tuesday of each month we’ll feature the thoughts of Bruce Paton, better known as the Beer Chef. Bruce has been putting together exquisite beer dinners for well over a decade, long before most chefs even discovered how well beer and food can be together. These days Paton is the Executive Chef at the Cathedral Hill Hotel on Van Ness in San Francisco, where several times a year he hosts beer dinners featuring beers from around the world and down the street.

Bruce Paton, the Beer Chef

Food & Beer with Bruce Paton

I have the benefit of living in the San Francisco Bay Area which is where American Craft Brewing got its start as well as being a hot bed of brewing creativity for many years. Some of the most amazing brewers in this country have made their homes here and they constantly continue to innovate while at the same time adhering to brewing traditions. San Francisco has also long been a center of culinary arts and professional chefs follow a similar path of creativity and innovation based on traditional methods. Fourteen years ago I was the Chef in a Restaurant with thirty beers on tap (the proverbial kid in the candy store) and we did a food and beer pairing dinner, one thing led to another and now I am The Beer Chef. Pairing food with beer can be loads of fun and to get good at it you have to drink lots of beer and eat lots of food. I know it sounds pretty rough but with a certain level of determination I know you can do it as well.

The general rules are very few because all peoples tastes are a little different. Cut, contrast and complement known as the three C’s are the basis of any food and beverage pairing. The basic idea is that you want to create more enjoyment for your taste buds by combining the two. Cut is simply palate cleansing when you eat something that clings to your taste buds be it chili pepper, chocolate or fat. You want a beverage that will wash away the flavor so you can enjoy the next bite of your meal as well as the previous one. An India Pale Ale is a perfect foil for a spicy Asian or Hispanic dishes as well as a slice of prime rib or a well marbled steak. The classic example on contrast is the briny flavor of oysters on the half shell with the roasted malt flavors of a Dry Stout. Complement is my favorite where the flavor of the food is accentuated by the beer and vice-versa. An Oatmeal Stout paired with a chocolate dessert will enhance both the beer and the food.

Some of my favorite pairings from the past have been with brewers in this area. Watermelon Wheat Beer from the 21ST Amendment’s Shaun O’Sullivan paired with a Smoked Salmon Salad with Heirloom Tomatoes, Cucumber Gelee and Scallion Crème Fraiche. Moylan’s Hopsicle (Double IPA) from James Costa paired with Kurobuta Pork, Hawaiian Butterfish and Sweet Potato Flan. Russian River’s Pliny the Elder (Double IPA) from Vinnie Cilurzo with Point Reyes Blue Cheese, Salvation Ale (Belgian Style Strong Dark Ale) also from Russian River with Ancho Chili Chocolate Mousse and Duck Tetrazzinni with Anchor Porter.

Chili Chocolate Mousse
Chili Chocolate Mousse paired with Russian River Salvation.


Dining with beer can be as simple or as grandiose as you would like it to be. Craft beer comes in a multitude of styles with each style having several variations. There is a beer to go with whatever you enjoy eating.

If you are already in the habit of enjoying wine with your dinner you have a good head start. Basic beer styles are can be broken down in the same manner that wine is. You have Lagers and some Belgian Style Ales that are similar to white wines, Ales that are similar to red wines and Barleywines and other stronger styles that are similar to port wine. Glassware is important in the enjoyment of quality craft beer and your wine glasses will stand in just fine for most of traditional beer glasses. Craft beer even at the highest cost level is much less expensive than wine.


With the moniker of The Beer Chef that I have adopted and trademarked your initial thought might be that my forte is cooking with beer. While I have dabbled in this practice throughout the last fourteen years of my career it has never been my main focus. The goal of my work has been to lift the pairing of beer with food to the level that wine and food enjoy while at the same time making more people aware of the vast myriad of choices of beer that is available. Even in this day and age when there are upwards of fourteen hundred craft breweries in the United States producing close to seven million barrels (a barrel is thirty one gallons) of beer annually, the fact is there are still a lot of people who think beer is tasteless lager style beer best served ice cold. Consequently I meet people all the time who say, “I don’t drink beer” for the reason that they haven’t gotten past the mass-produced product that they think of as beer. However that is another story entirely let us get back to cooking.

Beer has been in the kitchen for hundreds of years and in modern times even more so. When cooking with beer there are a few basic principles to remember. One of the more popular styles on the West Coast for consumption is India Pale Ale (IPA). West Coast IPAs are usually highly hopped with a clean crisp refreshing slightly bitter finish. However your favorite drinking beer may not be your favorite in the kitchen. Highly hopped beers do not do well in situations where there is a long cooking time or a reduction because when you concentrate bitterness you get a painful experience. Early in my career I made and ice cream with Sierra Nevada’s Classic Barleywine Bigfoot. While this beer has a sweet finish due to an abundance of malt is also has a very forward hop profile. I reduced the beer to syrup with intention of combining it with a flavorful ice cream batter. When I tasted the upshot the bitterness snapped my head around. The second time around I added sugar to the reduction and the outcome was delicious.

Beer is great in marinades and brines where you are looking to tenderize and/or add flavor. I like to use Porters and Stouts for these endeavors because of the roasted flavors the beer imparts on the end product. However I‘ve had great success marinating eggplant with Russian River Damnation Belgian Style Ale and grilling it on the barbecue. Whether you want to cook with it or just drink it the first thing to do is go out and try some new beers and go from there.

Cheers from Bruce


The Beer Chef

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