And now on to our interview with Christian.
Q: How long have you been writing about beer?
Christian: I wrote a few articles in my college paper about home brewing, but my first professional article came out after that in… yikes… 1998. It was for a glossy magazine out of Eugene called Brewing Techniques (RIP) and laid out some mysterious changes in Orval’s recipe. I traveled to the brewery and relentlessly pestered an assistant about the rumors, which were making headlines in Belgium and turned out to be true. I was instantly hooked on both on beer and travel journalism. Now I have just turned 42, so I have been a legal-consumer and beer writer for half my life.
Most of your writing that I have seen is regarding beer travel and styles; have you written about food before?
Some of my favorite assignments have been about chefs and food. When I was writing my first book (The Great American Ale Trail), I researched the beer & food pairing scene that was taking root across the country, writing about Portland’s Greg Higgins and New York chefs like Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park) and Dan Barber (Blue Hill) and Greg Engert (Church Key/Birch & Barley/Bluejacket) who were helping usher beer to center stage. All of those pros are still pushing the food and beer envelope, and there are so many new up-and-coming chefs doing it, too.
I personally love to cook, and I grew up in a food-loving family, and I even collect cookbooks. But I started this book as a beginner of beer-and-food pairing. And Andrea, while having a really sophisticated wine sense, was only a casual beer drinker. So writing this book was a journey for both of us. The quest was: could I source beers that impressed her palate and worked with her inventive dishes, and conversely, could she come up with dishes that pair well with so many unusual and strongly-flavored modern beer styles coming out these days, like tart-saisons and sours and IPAs and imperial stouts?
How did you and (co-writer) Andrea Slonecker get teamed-up on this book?
True story: in late 2013, I was down in SF debating David Lynch, a wine expert, while wearing lucha libre masks for fun (those funny “professional” wrestling getups that originated in Mexico). Steve Jones of Cheese Bar in Portland was our referee with bowtie. We were debating beers-versus-wines with cheeses in front of 100 journalists attending the IACP or International Association of Culinary Professionals conference. What we didn’t know is that Bill LeBlond, the respected former cookbook editor of Chronicle Books, was in the audience with Portland-based author Andrea Slonecker, who I’d met a couple times at food events in Portland. Bill had wanted her to find a beer resource to work with and pitch Chronicle a cooking and beer pairing title, so she brought him to listen to our “lecture”. No one had any idea what was about to happen, and we were going for broke with all the jokes and jabs and goofing around (in between semi-serious lessons about pairing). We got the deal, luckily.
Why did you decide to do a cookbook? Some would argue beer and food pairing has been well, even over-covered.
Andrea Slonecker is a terrific chef with multiple cookbooks under her belt and a lot of fans in the food world. And I was very happy to challenge myself to take on the topic and write another book with her. It’s much easier working in a team, for one. It might sound strange coming from a long-time beer guy, but the topic of nuanced beer and food pairing did not deeply interest me before BEER BITES. I’d worked in wineries and some white tablecloth restaurants, and I was much more interested in the brewing and drinking of good beer in, well, a looser setting, like a dark old pub. But this sounded like a delicious challenge.
Much-loved books like Garrett Oliver’s “Brewmaster’s Table” encouraged respect for beer’s place in the culinary conversation, and sprinkled throughout Michael Jackson’s books are delicious morsels about eating with beer (ditto M.F.K. Fisher and James Beard). But these were not cookbooks. Researching this idea, we came to feel that we’re still in the infancy of pairing beer and food, both in terms of ambitious, original books out there and in terms of the public considering beer and food pairing to be anything more than a passing trend. We felt there weren’t many, if any, beer and food pairing books out there going beyond the proverbial beer-cheese-soup with original, chef-driven recipes that are inspired by the kind of food Portland is becoming famous for in creative restaurants like Le Pigeon and Kachka and Pok Pok and Imperial. And the many modern beers like sours and saisons from Upright and The Commons and hoppy innovations from Breakside had no cookbooks out there singing their praises. So we wanted to do something thoughtful, but we didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel or make a grand statement about the “rules” of beer-and-food pairing. Nor did we want to run a bunch of predictable recipes the average brewpub slaps together every night. We wanted to create a fresh selection of modern recipes that pay homage to a few classics, but in general, that elevate beer and food pairing in a fun and accessible way. All told there are 65 recipes and a total of 45 beer styles introduced, with perhaps 250 beers mentioned specifically, many from Oregon.
Is writing about food much different than writing about beer?
It depends on the audience. Today the food lover’s vocabulary and interests are ever-changing and wide-ranging, regardless of borders and established norms. Beer lovers are definitely moving in myriad directions, too. So we wanted to make this book about flavor instead of, say, specific cultural signposts like “Germany” or “England”. With BEER BITES we set out to do something that hadn’t been done before in any books we’ve ever come across, which is break the book down not by entirely beer styles or meals of the day but by broad flavor groups. Instead of “what to drink with X lager and Y ale” or “with chocolate cake”, we organize the book in terms of broad flavor groups, like “fruit & spice”, “rich, roasty, smoky” and “sour & complex.” In this way, we could mix and match styles of beer across the spectrum and tell the story of beer in terms serious food-lovers can understand and appreciate. It’s a beer lover’s guide to cooking and a cook’s guide to beer styles. There’s some classics (fish-and-chips; mussels alá gueuze) and some real surprises, too (bánh xèo; and tamarind and fish-sauce hot wings…)
Did you try out all the recipes and pairings in this book, and if so, where?
Absolutely. Most dishes were cooked and tested by us at least two or three times, and some dishes did not make the cut. Many many beers were eliminated, too. Through a friend of a friend we scored the use of a test kitchen in Northwest Portland for six weeks where we could post up every day in the spring of 2014. Andrea would cook three, four, five dishes a day and I would collect, chill, and present beers to try with the dishes, with sometimes a dozen open at a time. It was very methodical; we were taking notes the entire time, but I’d be lying if I said we didn’t enjoy the process. I did a lot of dishes, but I would happily have done more. Now what we’re finding is that beer bars and restaurants are having fun presenting the dishes with beers they pick out. We’ve done events at Feast Portland, at the NoMad hotel in NYC, the Multnomah Athletic Club, The Community Plate in McMinnville, and tomorrow (Thursday the 10th, at The Commons Brewery from 5-7pm). This is a really fun way for people to try the pairings out and relax with good beers.
What was the most difficult recipe or pairing in the book?
Honestly, it was very tough finding beers to work with strong tomato flavors, and foods to work with very hoppy beers. But we did. There’s a spicy, wok-fired chile crab dish that does amazing things with Double IPA. And some classics like super savory, meaty, cheesy stromboli paired with white IPA as well as a crazy-good ribs dish with burnt orange and quadruple beer glaze. Saisons worked wonders throughout the book. The toughest overall was Orval. We wanted to include it because it’s a personal favorite and a super-influentical, iconic Belgian pale ale with unusual flavors of hay, leather, citrus, and earthy, spicy hops and the funk of Brettanomyces yeast. This beer is very difficult to pair, but we’re both big fans of it. Sorry, but you’ll have to check out the book to see what we came up with
What is your favorite beer and food pairing (not necessarily in the book)?
It’s hard to beat mussels and gueuze on a cold winter night!
How is your brewery doing and will you continue writing?
After 18 months of very hard work, I’m proud to say Wolves & People is finally in production. I got the final permits and liquor license this week. Our site and newsletter and social handles will have all the info about plans and projects to come. Wolves & People will have tasting room hours and a public launch in the early spring. We’re working on a truffle beer and other projects and collaborations for the winter and plans for 2016. And I am definitely still writing. A new version of The Great American Ale Trail will be released in late April, 2016, with about 150 new breweries added to the book and edits throughout. The Oregon chapter, already the longest, is even longer now. My website will have the info as it comes out.
What is your next project?
Sleep sounds pretty delicious to be honest! We’re working on propping a lot of wild yeasts at the farm to add to our collection of house cultures as well as labels and other aspects. I’m grateful to say my plate feels good and full.
Join the authors, along with their friends from The Commons Brewery and Steve Jones of Cheese Annex, for a beer and food pairing party on Thursday, December 10th, from 5-7pm at The Commons’ tasting room on SE Belmont Street. For $12, the brewery will offer a tasting flight of four beers perfectly paired with four recipes from Beer Bites.
DeBenedetti and Slonecker will be on hand to chat with guests about their adventures in beer and food pairing, and to sign and sell copies of the book just in time for the holidays.
The Commons Brewery
630 SE Belmont St., Portland, OR, 97212
Thursday, December 10th
21+. Special flight of four beer tasters and four food pairings for $12. Regular menu and tap list available for purchase from The Commons and Cheese Annex.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Christian DeBenedetti is a beer and travel writer, author of THE GREAT AMERICAN ALE TRAIL (Vol. 2, coming May 2016), and founder of Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery in Newberg, Ore.
Andrea Slonecker is a Portland-based cookbook author, food stylist, and the recipe editor for Kinfolk. She is the author of PRETZEL MAKING AT HOME and EGGS ON TOP, and co-author of THE PICNIC.