This Juice is Anything But Green
Pairing wine or beer with fruits and vegetables isn’t as hard as you may think
When it comes to pairing wine and food, the rule,
“What grows together goes together,” usually rings true.
There’s a reason why so many grape varieties exist throughout Italy and why different regions are known for specific food and wine – those things usually go well together. Same is true for many wine regions around the world.
And then there’s beer. It used to be thought that wine paired better with food and beer paired with, well, beer. Or peanuts. But in the last five to seven years, more beverage directors, bar managers and beer aficionados have demonstrated to diners that yes, beer does pair well with a variety of food. Think about it: With so many different beer styles, from crisp light lagers or sours to hefty stouts to citrusy hefeweizens, it only makes sense a variety of beer would pair with a range of food.
But what do you do when it comes to pairing wine or beer with ... produce?
“In the context of where you’re normally pairing, you’re never going to plunk down a piece of fruit or a vegetable by itself,” says Randy Mosher, creative partner and alchemist at culinary brewery Forbidden Root in Chicago. “There's always a lot of other stuff going on. With vegetables, the other things you put in the dish will be more overpowering. You have to think about how it’s prepared: roasted or steamed, is there butter or béarnaise? Same thing with fruit; it’s never just an orange and a beer.”
Mosher looks at contrasting elements when pairing beer with produce. He considers the different tastes on the tongue like fat, sweet or bitter and then takes aromas into account. He says you don't necessarily want to put matching tastes together, but rather things that will balance each other.
“If the beer is bitter, the dish should have some fat or sweetness to stand up to the beer,”
he suggests. “Then you can find the aromatic similarities. So, if you have broccoli or spinach with herbal nature, you'll want a beer with herbal hop notes like a German pils. With fruit, you have to look at it in context of the whole dish.”
Mosher uses grilled chicken topped with mango chutney as an example. That sweetness from the mango calls for some newer hops with tropical fruit and mango or passion fruit notes to connect the flavors, he explains.
Adopt a chef’s mindset for pairing beer, wine
When it comes to pairing beer and various vegetables, think like a chef. Through fermentation and aging processes, beer can include caramelized notes. Or coffee, chocolate or toasty notes. The same thing happens when you roast cauliflower, sweet potatoes or green beans, especially over an open flame. You may not think brown ale or cream stout makes sense with a delicate vegetable, but when you bring out those roasty notes? Your options widen.
The same thing goes with wine. Sometimes with wine you want truly complementary flavor matches like rigatoni with pork ragu and Sangiovese. But a big, tannic red would destroy your mouth if paired with spicy Indian food, which often also is vegetable heavy. You'd want something to cut the heat, like a Gewürztraminer or sweeter Riesling. The same thing goes with bitter greens. You want to look for lower tannin, lower alcohol reds and crisp whites.
“Big red wines tend to not work with vegetables because they’re too overpowering,”
says Amanda Cohen, chef/owner of New York's Dirt Candy. “You want something that balances it out.”
Cohen recommends floral, fruity whites like muscatel or moscato with her dishes, but Ryan Arnold, divisional wine director of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, believes you can do a lot more with produce, especially when you introduce cooking techniques and other flavors from spices, seasonings and sauces. He admits pairing with asparagus or bitter, leafy greens can get tricky.
“The trick with asparagus is to have a textured white, like gruner veltliner,” Arnold explains. “It has weight and texture without the use of additional wood or sugar. Wood can introduce tannins or vanilla and baking spice aromatics. If you find the right un-oaked chardonnays or chenin blancs, those work, too.”
Arnold, like Cohen, suggests avoiding higher alcohol or tannic reds with leafy or bitter greens or bell peppers because they can clash with the bitterness or acidic produce. That said, you don't need to rule out red wines entirely. He recommends lower-alcohol, more delicate or fruitier reds like gamay from Beaujolais or pinot noir – even some cabernet franc with its herbaceous aromatic components. But his ace in the hole with produce? Beer.
“I use a lot of beer as a secret weapon for salad courses,”
Arnold admits. “Nix IPAs. It’s the same hesitation as tannins in wine: You want to watch out for hops in beer. Look for golden ales and hefeweizens.”
Don’t let your pairing overpower your produce
Mosher thinks hops actually can play well with produce, if you know what to look for. Hops, a main ingredient in beer, offer a range of flavors so you do need to be careful when pairing produce, or any food for that matter.
“Think about the natural flavor companions to the dishes and try to find that in a beer,” Mosher says.
“If it’s herbal, fruity or citrusy, if you get the right kind of hops in a beer that citrusy note on the hops can really brighten up a dish.”
When it’s all said and done, you really just want to ensure flavors complement each other, and that nothing, whether beer or wine, is too overpowering for your dish.
“With pairing, you always want to avoid the Bambi vs. Godzilla effect,” Mosher implores. “Vegetables tend to be on the lighter end depending how they’re prepared. They don’t have to be evenly matched, but make sure one doesn’t slaughter the other.”
Because that can just kill a dining experience – and no one wants that.
The Beverage Battle – Beer & Wine Pairings From the Experts
With so many ways to prepare produce, whether on their own or as part of a larger dish, it can get overwhelming to know how best to pair them. Sure, you can always let your patrons drink whatever they want, but we asked Randy Mosher, the creative director and alchemist at Chicago culinary brewery Forbidden Root, and Ryan Arnold, divisional wine director of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, for their expert pairing guidance for specific dishes. We shared a list of dishes with each and asked Mosher for his beer pairings and Arnold for wine. Let's see how they compare, shall we?
Spicy Mango Guacamole:
Mosher: Something malty like a Mexican dark lager, which is good with spice. Or a beer with a nutty character like an English ESB to get that nuttiness to go with the avocado.
Arnold: Sparkling wine. Guacamole has considerable fat, so a chardonnay-based Champagne – or anything that’s above seven grams of sugar would work to help neutralize the spice.
Mosher: A farmhouse type of beer like a Saison Dupont.
Arnold: If balsamic vinegar isn't overused, I love a light coastal vermentino, especially from Liguria. That plays well with the basil.
Falafel with Tahini:
Mosher: Something dark like American brown ale. The tahini brings richness and nuttiness, as does the beer. The beer also has some bitterness that will cut through the fattiness of the dish.
Arnold: You have sesame and garlic ... you could do a Provence-style, cinsault-based rosé.
Watermelon, Cucumber and Feta Salad:
Mosher: This is a good place for a fruited gose or a Berliner weis, maybe one made with watermelon as long as it’s not artificial tasting.
Arnold: Pinot noir rosé would work well. Red Car has a great one with strawberry and red fruit.
Fettuccine with Squash, Kale, Olive Oil and Calabrian Chile:
Mosher: That's a pretty delicate dish, so you don’t want something too rich unless you add cheese or something creamy. Find a beer like an English brown with just enough bitterness to match the fat level.
Arnold: White wine from Campania like a Fiano di Avellino. That has a melon, fruity characteristic with rich silkiness that's like biting into a honeyed, ripe cantaloupe that will match the squash well. And it’s lower alcohol, so the chile won’t interfere and the vegetables will show through.
Prosciutto and Melon:
Mosher: An oak-aged bret saison, which is more exotic with a white wine mentality so the tannin will help with the richness of the prosciutto, but the acidity will balance the sweetness and saltiness.
Arnold: You have salty and sweet, so you want a fruitier red wine like frappato blended with Nero d’Avola. It’s easy drinking and not tannic, but silky and bright with cranberry and pomegranate. Or a dry Riesling.
Mosher: My inclination with Indian food is to stay out of its way, so a nice Czech- or German-style pils or a Belgian blonde that'll be more complex with more alcohol, but won’t emphasize the heat in the dish. Too much hops will aggravate that, so stay under seven percent ABV.
Arnold: Chickpeas are so hearty, so let’s go with beer like a brighter-style hefeweizen.