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Tips for Pairing Hot Pizza with Craft Beer

Tips for Pairing Hot Pizza with Craft Beer

Chatting with the Cicerone

Michael McAvena fancies himself as somewhat of a pizza connoisseur. He loves it extra thin, with thoughtful ingredients such as mortadella, freshly squeezed lemon juice and arugula, and he seeks out magnificent pies when he’s on the road for business.

By day, McAvena operates as a certified cicerone, or beer sommelier, and during nightfall he relishes the best pizzas from coast to coast. What he’s observed at many Italian-focused eateries is that traditionally, there is more focus on pairing pizzas with wine than craft beers.

More recently, however, he’s noticed a slight shift from the norm as more industry professionals acquire knowledge about craft beers. For McAvena, who served as the founding beer director at James Beard recipient and beer-focused Publican restaurant in Chicago, this shift makes sense as beer and pizza contain some of the same ingredients, making the match quite compatible.

“At the end of the day, you’re talking about pairing food and beer, so the pairing really isn’t that difficult,” explains McAvena, who won Star Chefs’ sommelier award in 2011. “Add to that the fact that beer contains the exact same ingredient as pizza crust — wheat. Beer is pretty much bread, liquid bread.”

He prefers pairing pizzas with beers containing a high level of wheat because they tend to have low bitterness. For example, he explains, a white pizza topped with lemon, arugula and anchovies goes well with Gose, an old-style German beer that is a slightly sour, sweet beer with a touch of coriander and salt. According to McAvena, Gose is enjoying a mini-revival among beer enthusiasts because breweries like Chicago’s Off Color Brewing specialize in it.

As far as pizza, McAvena’s favorite styles are thin-crust, Neapolitan and wood-fired topped with red sauce. They allow for him to indulge in the rich, yet carefully curated toppings. And that also gives him an opportunity to be more adventurous with his beer pairings.

“I always want to be playful,” he confesses. “It would be fun to try something with higher level acidity such as lambic, Berliner and Flemish sour. Cider is also a great way to play off the acidity and balance. I typically stay away from IPAs and big black styles (because those become too overwhelming).”

When it comes to traditional Chicago-style, deep-dish pies, he recommends avoiding beers that are “over-roasted, over-bitter and over-hopped.”

“You want to stay with things that play well with deep flavors and lots of ingredients … especially with more salty things. As dishes become more salty it helps with the pairing.”

McAvena’s recommendations are seemingly endless when it concerns beer and pizza pairings, but they’re at their most valuable when those pairings become interactive for diners.

He suggests that restaurateurs think outside of the box in order to pique their interest:

  • Upsell craft beers by creating a pizza that will complement its flavors.
  • Team up with a local craft brewery for a tour, beer tasting and pizzas that pair well.
  • Use beer-enhanced pizza toppings such as saison-infused mortadella or cheese.
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