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Autumn Beer Pairing – From Pumpkins to Pork

Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to announce that Matt Heffernan, Tavernkeeper at The Smoke and Barrel in Adams Morgan and the fellow behind the Beerpairing.org that is in development, will be writing some pieces for DCBeer.com on beer and food pairings. Find more of his thoughts on beer pairings via Twitter: @beerpairing.

The fall offers an incredible palette of flavors from which to paint your personal pairing masterpiece. Each trend in seasonal brewing brings another layer of possibilities for you to play with. Like the texture of an oil laden canvas, your pairings will have an additional dimension. The reason for this is simple: the most popular types of seasonal beer releases have traits that are not only exceptional by themselves but also with other flavors. These releases allow for stretching the limits of how you can creatively manipulate traditional flavors into new explorations.

You may have noticed a lot of restaurants and recipes putting apples and cilantro together lately. While cilantro is an herb that will give you multiple crops throughout the summer, the opportunity to take the freshness of the late summer cilantro and combine it with the crisp sweetness of early fall apples lends itself really well to pairing with autumn hop harvest ales. Incorporating wet, freshly harvested hops into brews, with the malty base that we expect in these cooler months, is a trend that has really taken off. Throw nuts into the dish, as salads that incorporate apples often do, and you have something truly symbiotic. I recommend dressing your greens lightly with a cider vinaigrette, tossing liberally with cilantro, apples, dried cranberries and toasted pecans, and enjoying that with a Sierra Nevada Harvest.

My chef at Smoke and Barrel, Vinny Waide, recently pointed something out to me that I feel I have to share in this piece. While it’s true that the Oktoberfest lagers have their own catalog of great traditional pairings (bratwurst anyone?), there is something really interesting chemically about the interaction between the brassiness of the eastern European hop characteristic when it’s up against something pickled. I wish I knew the chemistry well enough to hazard a guess. I don’t, however, so I’ll just say this: pickles’ acidic nature, provided by the vinegar-based brine, with the type of bitterness showcased by hops of that region, shines in a way that must mean something going on at the molecular level. We’ve been enjoying the Schlafly Oktoberfest with our fried pickles, and it is a unique pairing experience.

The last in the trio of common fall seasonal brews is the divisive pumpkin ale. Many deride the style as “candy beer.” Many others start stocking the fridge the minute the bottles hit the shelves. No matter where you land on the baking spice brews, one thing is for certain: they taste excellent with pork. Even a pumpkin beer hater will have trouble denying the excellence of this pairing. Here in the US, pork is so often prepared in a style highlighting sweet flavors; it makes sense that a beer evocative of desserts would make a fitting match. If you read my past DCBeer post, or follow my work with the @beerpairing handle on Twitter, then you know that I am big fan of Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine. Bringing in flavors from the southern side of our continent is a great way to take the pumpkin and pork pairings to an inspired level of complexity.

In certain regions, a real Mexican mole is known to incorporate cinnamon and cloves, and those aromatics happen to be featured in most breweries’ pumpkin offerings. We are going to take advantage of that association. If you are like me and working the grill with a jacket on well past September does not scare you, then you are in for a treat. Get your hands on some nice thick center-cut pork chops, preferably bone-in. While you are at the grocery store, invest in some things that you might not have in your cabinet already: whole coriander and cumin seeds, dried ancho chiles, and a $10 dollar coffee grinder that you can use to grind the spice mixture. You should pulverize a couple chiles in a food processor (you could also just cut them by hand with a knife, or kitchen scissors) before adding them to a dry pan with the cumin and coriander seed and some whole black peppercorns in a 4:2:1 ratio. Add just a few whole cloves and toast the spices until you can smell the aromatic oils being released. Let them cool before grinding them. When you have got your mixture well ground, liberally salt your cuts of pork and then rub with your fresh spices. Grill the chops on charcoal or wood if you have it, and enjoy with a Southern Tier Pumking. Looking for an easy side? Toss some butternut squash with apples, onions, salt and a little oil and roast until brown.

Next time you are doing your shopping, focus on the flavors of the season for both your glass and your plate. These cycles exist for a reason: they have been tested and celebrated over the hundreds of years that people have been enjoying beer with their meals. We are lucky to be living in a world that has seen craft beer expansion offer us such wonderful things as harvest IPAs, pumpkin ales, and even new takes on a traditional style, the Oktoberfest lager, among a huge number of other styles. Take advantage of each season’s bounty, but don’t forget that you are free to paint your pairing experience with any flavor you like. After all, the best beer pairings are sometimes the most unexpected!

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