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The Tastemakers of the Brewers Association Share Their Pairing Philosophies

Eater's GABF Tastemakers continues today with our heroes from the Brewers Association. Julia Herz, craft beer program director and publisher of, and Andy Sparhawk, craft beer program coordinator, make up a small team with a loud-and-proud voice. When they pair their food with beer, these certified Cicerones do it with intentionality and passion. Here's an inside scoop into their palates and pairings.

Julia Herz; Brewers Association Craft Beer Program Director/Publisher of, Certified Cicerone®/BJCP Certified Beer Judge/Craft Beer Ninja

How did you get to where you are now? Homebrewing got my beer journey truly started. Plus my brother's beer can collection, so before I was 10 I was thinking about different kinds of beer in different packages. Being in touch with the science and sensory side of 'flavor' (which is actually a fusion of taste, aroma, sensation and personal palate experience) is essential in what I do. Being charged as a voice for today's small and independent craft brewers who make up 98 percent of the U.S. 2,600 breweries I host tastings across the U.S. for beer lovers, retailers, wholesalers, media and brewers. It's a blast, and important that I am tapped into what I perceive and why.

What are some classic beer and food pairings you like to work with? Classic pairings are the ones that match flavors and intensity. American IPA and blue cheeses (herbal veined flavors from the blue cheeses tie in so nicely to the pine/forest flavors of many IPA's) plus the 5.5-7.5 percent average ABV of IPA meets the weight of these creamy cheeses well. Lastly the hop bitterness and carbonation cut through the cheese fat so you can get to the cheese flavors. Plus I'm very hard pressed to ever find a wine that works with blue cheese so it's a great pairing to turn those cross-drinking grape juice lovers onto.

How do you explain pairings to your guests? The palate-mind connection (mental interpretation of what we perceive based on experience/bias and more) is a very deep topic with the physiology of one's palate, science and mental acuity all involved. As such, perception and pairing are personal, meaning that we each perceive and are aware of what we sample on an individual basis. When tasting a pairing together I cannot (nor should not) tell you what you are supposed to taste.

I have a couple of pairings tips:
Pairing 101 tip: Pairing is fun!
Paring 102 tip: I like to say pairing interactions come from a contrast of the primary taste elements (sweet, salt, sour, bitter, umami), complement from flavor based volatile compounds, rests from sensations like carbonation and matching-or not-of intensities.

What is your most memorable food pairing experience? Pairing Lucy Saunders graham cracker s'mores with torched marshmallow dessert and a U.S. belgo-quad. Glory be, during test tasting when that beer came out of the cooler, we finally got the beer intensity to match the food intensity. Then the flavors of the Belgian dark sugars and malt found the graham cracker and chocolate in a way that was magic. Plus the sweetness of the quad calmed the sweetness of the marshmallow along background flavors to shine.

How have you seen the brewing/restaurant industry change in the past 10 years? Yes! Thankfully now new retail establishments are being built around the proper service and selection that the beverage of beer deserves. An expanded beer selection and proper storage and service is essential for beer both for draught and for bottles. Storage is key and many retailers now get that shelf life and stalling is an issue with most craft beers as they are living breathing liquid libations. Thus storage of bottles below 50 F should be common practice as well storage of kegs below 40 F.

What's a favorite pairing that breaks all the rules and shouldn't work, but does? So many pairings with complements of browned, kilned, and roasted malt flavors matched with cooked, roasted, grilled, smoked meats are glorious and safe bets. Go beyond that you'll be so pleasantly surprised especially when you take into account the major taste elements in beer and how they can interact with other taste elements in food. We have our Cheat sheet here.

Where are the beer-friendly menus and the lists to match? For our GABF attendees this week in Denver, Euclid Hall, Freshcraft, The Kitchen Denver, and Colt & Gray are but a few mere examples of places that will be packed with palate-pushing beer lovers.

What's one of your favorite beers this season to drop on the table or see on the menu? Pumpkin ales, of course.

Andy Sparhawk, Brewers Association Craft Beer Program Coordinator, Certified Cicerone®, BJCP Certified Judge

How did you get to where you are now? I'm not sure how I'm so lucky to work for the BA, but I guess I just was the intern that never wanted to leave.

What are some classic beer and food pairings you like to work with?
I like simple, fresh flavors, that pack quite a punch. More often than not, I get far more of a kick about a cheese + fruit + beer + bread - or any derivative of that – than many multi-course meals. Recently had a great experience with a hunk of French bread, chunk of brie, gorgeous Palisade peach, a brett saison and the Colorado sunset. Divine.

How do you explain pairings to your guests? I think that the preconception of most people I talk to pairing craft beer and food for the first time is that pairings are a fad. Beer has been paired with food around the world for centuries; it just might seem new to the United States.

What's your favorite beer and cheese pairing? One that comes to mind was a pairing we did a couple years ago at the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywine Festival where John Mallet wowed the crowd serving Bell's Cherry Stout with Upland Cheese Company's Rush Creek Reserve. The milky flavors of the cheese intertwined with the smooth stout sending waves of fruit, chocolate and coffee each playing off of the creamy cheese.

While it may seem daunting, craft beer, and cheese pairings are a great way to practice pairings because there is very little preparation that needs to be done; often all you need is to let the cheese and beer warm up a little bit. Because you might not always have access to Bell's or Upland's Rush Creek Reserve, I'd suggest finding a simple brie or camembert; some peach jam; and wheat crackers to play around with a French/Belgian-style Saison.

How have you seen the brewing/restaurant industry change in the past 10 years? There is no doubt that craft brewers have made their mark in the industry in the past 10 years. I think slowly restaurants are embracing the craft beer experience as something diners want, and that it is in their best interest to serve food friendly beers from local, regional and national craft brewers.

What's a favorite pairing that breaks all the rules and shouldn't work, but does? Duck confit with mango ginger stilton on almond fig bread served with a locally produced German-style Helles – On paper, a helles would never stand-up to so many pronounced flavors, but I-kid-you-not this was one of the most amazing pairings I've ever had.

Where are the beer-friendly menus and the lists to match? I think any menu can be beer-friendly; there isn't much that beer can't play well with, but it takes the buy-in of management to see the opportunities that craft beer and food provide to a restaurant. It's fantastic to hear about restaurants and bars that encourage [or even demand] that their staff become a part of the Cicerone program. Those are the type of places I want to seek out and experience.

What's one of your favorite beers this season to drop on the table or see on the menu? After a sweltering summer, I always look forward to browns, porters and stouts which complement not only the seasonal fare but the brisk weather. Last year, I was blown away by a sweet potato cheesecake and snifter of Firestone Walker's Velvet Merlin, and will definitely look to recreate the pairing again this year.

Julia Herz [Photo: Emily Heller]

· All GABF Tastemaker Profiles [EDen]
· All GABF Coverage [EDen]
· The Slotted Spoon: Ready To Rock The Meatball [EDen]