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Ryan Layman on Pairing Beer with Food, and How Local Beer Culture Has Changed In The Last Decade

Whether it's a meal and occasion shared with the best of friends, that fancy restaurant that you've been saving for months to splurge at, or something as simple as a cheap pilsner with some cheese and the perfect summer day, the right combination of food and beverage can be moving. Those lucky enough to have found their way into the profession of pairing the fermented drink with fine foods are certainly using their talents to prepare for Great American Beer Festival this week. Eater polled some of Denver's top palates on their favorite beer and food pairings and will release expert opinions on food and beer pairings in this week's GABF Tastemakers series. So stay tuned, stay thirsty, and most importantly, take advantage of some of these excellent suggestions.

Ryan Layman, the bar manager of Steuben's Food Service is Eater's first GABF Tastemaker. With a BarSmarts Advanced Certification and a cocktail publication in the Mr. Boston Cocktail Book, Layman has been working in the service industry for over 18 years -- more than half of his life. Nothing makes him happier than a well-choreographed meal, even if it includes one of his favorites, Coors Banquet.

How did you get to where you are now?In November 2008, while working at The Avenue Grill in Uptown Denver, I had the life-changing opportunity to learn proper cocktail technique and flavor pairings from Toby Maloney, owner of The Violet Hour in Chicago. Maloney sparked a passion within me for cocktail creation and flavor awareness that I had never spent time with, or even thought about. I had worked in the service industry since I was 14, but had never realized how big it could be for me. I was in school finishing up my BFA in Fine Art with the intention of teaching, but after this experience, I changed my career path to focus on bartending, service and all that make our industry the best industry to be a part of. I am deeply grateful for what I learned that day.

What are some classic beer and food pairings you like to work with?
When I am asked by our guests at Steuben's to help them pair a great beer with their BBQ Brisket or Memphis Ribs I almost always choose Left Hand Milk Stout. It's one of my favorite stouts and the rich creaminess and slight sweetness go great with the smokey and slightly spicy flavors of BBQ. If a guest is having a Cubano or a cheesesteak sandwich, a medium-bodied, full-flavored pale such as Odell Brewing's 5 Barrel Pale Ale is my go-to. Usually with anything on the spicier end, such as our green chile stew or our chile rellano, I'll suggest a non-aggressive but flavorful lager like Session, Lonestar or my favorite beer of all time, Coors Banquet (my dad's side of the family worked at Coors, so I may be a little biased, but it's still a great pairing!).

How do you explain pairings to your guests? For me, pairings should ultimately come from what you want to drink, not exactly what you think you should drink to pair well. I may personally pair a stout with BBQ, but even a great IPA works really well. If a guest asks me for help with pairing a great beer with their meal, I generally offer at least two beers with very different flavor profiles. This has been a great approach for me because it becomes a team effort between my guest and I, we both learn a little from each other.

What is your most memorable bar/food pairing experience? An $8 Coors Banquet and a $9 foot long bratwurst at Coors Field! Definitely not mind—blowing by any means, but I look forward to Rockies games for this [pairing] alone.

What's your favorite beer and cheese pairing? I'm a sucker for big blue cheeses, Stilton or Bleu D'Auvergne, served with with a little bit of honey on a cracker paired with Anchor Steam. That beer has so much going on without being aggressive or offensive, and it only enhances whatever you pair it with.

How have you seen the brewing/restaurant industry change in the past 10 years? Over the last ten years, it has been really wonderful to witness our great city develop a more thoughtful palate. In the past ten years our city has seen a boom of craft and nanobreweries offering greater options for beer fans to choose from, as well as giving us in the industry a clear sign that people here demand more. Rock Bottom Brewery was one of the prime downtown destinations ten years ago, but there are a lot more players in town now.

What's a favorite pairing that breaks all the rules and shouldn't work, but does? Enjoying an Odell IPA with sticky toffee pudding is a fantastic oddball pairing. The floral and honey notes of this great beer provide a great counterpart to the rich, buttery nuttiness of an already fantastic dessert.

Where are the beer-friendly menus and the lists to match? Euclid Hall is my absolute favorite beer-centric restaurant in town. Not only is there beer list massive yet well executed, Chef Jorel Pierce and crew offer some of the best food in town. I really enjoy Prost Brewing for the fact that they are filling a niche here that no one else is filling, and it doesn't hurt that the Prost Dunkel is out of this world! I also really love Vine St. Pub. Their list is always changing and full of really adventurous things, like putting a very hoppy pale on nitro.

What's one of your favorite beers this season to drop on the table/see on the menu? River North Brewing's Unified Theory, an oaked imperial wit, is fantastic for the fall. Left Hand's Fade To Black and Wake Up Dead are two beers I look forward to around this time of year, every year. Odell Brewing's Fernet Aged Porter is possibly the most exciting beer for me right now, I can't wait to have it at Steuben's.

Photo: Ryan Layman [Photo: Adam Larkey]

· The 38 Essential Denver Restaurants, October 2013 [EDen]
· The Ultimate Guide To Denver Beer Fest 2013 [EDen]
· Denver's Top Bartenders Uncovered [EDen]


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