If you ask Michael Carroll, co-founder and head brewer at Chicago’s Band of Bohemia, how he approaches pairing beer and food, you’ll probably get an unexpected answer: “There’s not much rhyme or reason to it,” he says.
Given that Band of Bohemia is the only brewpub to acquire an elusive Michelin star, and that Michelin’s guide notes that Band of Bohemia features beers that are "matched seamlessly to the kitchen's boundless small and large plates, which defy expectations with delicious success,” you’d probably expect Carroll to unleash a long-winded explanation about the interplay between specific flavor components or a treatise on how elements within a dish, such as fat and acid, can impact your conception of the beer.
At the very least, you’d probably expect some sort of plan of attack.
After all, Band of Bohemia isn’t your average brewpub. Carroll and Craig Sindelar, the brewpub’s co-founder and director of operations, are both veterans of Grant Achatz’s acclaimed three-star restaurant Alinea, and they bill Band of Bohemia as a “culinary brewhouse,” going so far as to paint the phrase on the brick facade of the former cookie factory that houses the brewpub.
Moreover, the interplay between beer and food is an intrinsic part of the Band of Bohemia dining experience. When you dine at Band of Bohemia, your waiter walks you through an elaborate song and dance in which he asks what you’re thinking of eating to help steer you to the ideal beers for the dish.
However, given Carroll’s answer, you might wonder, “Is this pairing business bullshit?”
But here’s the thing, it isn’t. Obviously not every beer goes well with every food – especially when you’re talking about idiosyncratic beers like Band of Bohemia’s Guava Pink Peppercorn Rye, a “florally spicy and lightly tart” rye beer and Constellation's Kiss, a summery beer brewed with jasmine rice, lemongrass, and finished with Thai basil.
And while food and beer or food and wine pairings can go to extremes – just Google “food and wine pairing” – there’s obviously something there. That something typically means following one of two main paths: congruent pairings or complementary pairings. Carroll’s approach veers toward the complementary approach, which seeks to balance contrasting flavors.
“With every dish we try to find what’s missing – a flavor or an ingredient,” he says. “We want it to harmoniously come together. So, if we have a dish that’s very peppery, we don’t want to eat that with a beer like Guava Pink Peppercorn Rye that has peppery notes. Your drink should balance out your food.”
The beer comes first at Band of Bohemia. That is, Carroll and his colleagues brew beers with the goal of producing food-friendly beverages with complex, intricate flavor profiles. For instance, to produce Constellation’s Kiss, Carroll steams Jasmine rice, then toasts it in an oven to add nutty, fruity notes from the rice. He then combined the rice with malted barley to create a delicate, yet complex malt base. Then, as the wort boils, they add lemongrass and Thai basil to give the beer citrus and herbaceous notes.
If they taste good together, you’ll know it.”
Once the beer is ready, they dissect the beer, separating out the different notes within the beer. For instance, they might note Constellation’s Kiss’s anise, floral, and citrus notes. From there, they sit down with the chef to think of dishes that might complement the beer.
The chef then develops a dish, say the brewpub’s himachi appetizer, which was thought to go well with Constellation’s Kiss.
“We wanted a lighter, summery dish that would go well with a lighter summery beer,” he says.
Piecing together the dish – which now features beet-cured hamachi, almond gazpacho, green almonds, avocado, and tatami iwashi – took about a week. During that span they picked apart each element in the dish. For example, they added, then removed, candied apples, which they decided were too sweet, replacing them with pickled apples all with an eye toward how the flavors would work with the beer.
“The beer itself is very subtle,” he says. “We wanted the himachi to bring out some white tea notes that might otherwise get lost.”
Given that it took Band of Bohemia a week to figure out a pairing for a single appetizer, you might wonder how Carroll could say there isn’t much rhyme or reason to beer and food pairing. But what he really means is that there’s no need for hard and fast “rules” about what foods go with what type of beer or wine.
“Ultimately, it comes down to taste,” he says. “If they taste good together, you’ll know it. If the food brings out too much bitterness in the beer, or the flavors layer upon each other in an unappealing way, you’ll know that too.”
In other words, don’t overthink it.