Learning To Pair Food and Beer With Chef Bart Vandaele

Leah Bourne
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Sommeliers will often wax poetic about how pairing wine and food is an art form. And it is. Chablis enhances the taste of oysters, for instance. Certain cheeses, on the other hand, will overwhelm the flavor of Pinot Noir. It’s no wonder that you can actually get a degree in wine and food pairing—there is a lot to take in.
And while wine has had the status of the fine dining go-to for some time, the art of pairing beer and food is newly in fashion—the only difference being that beer experts will be quick to tell you to not take it all so seriously, and to just have fun with pairings.

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Photo Via Neal Santos, NealSantos.com

At the annual Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival, a highlight was “The Best of Belgium Beer Lunch” hosted by Belgian Chef Bart Vandaele, a former “Top Chef” contestant and the owner of two celebrated Washington, DC restaurants Belga Cafe and B Too, along with being a Brand Ambassador to Stella Artois.
“One of the great things about beer is that there are no written rules when you pair it with food,” he shared. “You can order a beer when you sit down—and enjoy it before the food arrives, with your appetizer, and then all the way through dessert. It’s much harder to do that with wine.”
Vandaele, along with Justin Everett of Sausalito, California’s Cavallo Point, and Ben Ford of Los Angeles’ Fords Filling Station, created a menu of lobster, oysters, quail, and even a butterscotch dessert paired with Stella Artois, Leffe Blonde, Leffe Brune, and Hoegaarden, highlighting just how versatile pairing food and beer can be.
Not to mention a fine dining trend that is picking up steam. Vandaele shared that almost 50 percent of the alcohol sales in his restaurants are beer, and “it’s about time” that beer is embraced in fine dining restaurants. Beyond being a big fan of eating the best foods paired with beer, Vandaele is also a fan of cooking with beer. “Be careful about using anything too hoppy, like an IPA, and don’t over-reduce it because it will be very, very bitter. For something like a beef stew, you can use a Trappist or an Abbey—a strong, dark ale,” he suggested.
Another beer tip to take be sure to take in, is that Vandaele is a huge proponent of drinking the right beer in the right glass. “You invest in certain wine glasses for certain wines, you should do the same for beer,” he says. “It makes a big difference.”
Looking to dive into pairing food with beer? Vandaele shared some of his top tips to keep in mind. If you have one takeaway, though, it should be to just have fun with it.

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Photo Via Neal Santos, NealSantos.com

FOOD AND BEER PAIRING 101:
1. Compliment or contrast. 
One of the core tips to keep in mind when pairing beer and food is either you want the flavors to compliment or contrast. Try to match foods to beer with complementary flavors (like fruity to fruity) or try contrasting flavors, such as a crisp, refreshing lager with a heavy cream soup.

2. Cheese is one of the best matches for beer.

Pairing cheese with wine has creeped into the lexicon as a thing, but Vandaele says one of the easiest beverages to pair with cheese is actually beer. Try a beer with a mild sweetness to play off the flavors of a pungent cheese.
3. Spicy food and beer are also a great choice.
It can be frustrating to pair spicy food with wine (particularly ethnic Indian or Thai dishes, for instance). Beer happens to make for a much easier pairing, according to Vandaele, something to keep in mind the next time you are out to dinner, or even at home, eating takeout.
4. You won’t believe how great beer and dessert taste together.
An unexpected, but beyond delightful pairing, is beer with dessert. It’s no wonder that Stella Artois alongside dark chocolate desserts has long been a favorite pairing in Belgium. One of Vandaele’s favorite guilty pleasure desserts actually incorporates beer. “With Hoegaarden we make a nice float with two scoops of ice cream, some honey, and Hoegaarden beer. It’s our version of the root beer float.”
5. Drink what you like.
Beer and food pairing experts will tell you that the number one rule to beer and food pairings is to drink what you like, and to not overthink it. Love drinking Stella Artois? The crisp and refreshing beer pairs well with almost anything from sushi to steak frites. Unlike wine where you have to worry about the progression of the meal, with beer, when in doubt, simply settle into a meal with your drink of choice.
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