It probably doesn’t come as any surprise to you that most people are not beer geeks. Nor are they connoisseurs. I however, make a point of letting those around me know that I am quite the geek, when it seems appropriate. The inevitable follow up question to that information? What’s your favorite beer?
I both receive and hear this question so often that I am forced to ponder its nature. From whence does this question emanate? I believe the question comes mostly from underexposure to the variety that craft beer has to offer. The breadth of style and flavor profile available to beer drinkers these days is truly astounding. When one is aware of this embarrassment of riches, calling any beer one’s absolute “favorite” begins to seem almost absurd.
Further, I consider beer a highly contextual beverage. My “favorite” beer at any given time is the result any number of factors. Let’s examine a few of those factors here.
Time of Day
Organized tastings and festivals aside, I’m usually going to drink a different beer at noon than I am at 9pm. That beer at noon will probably be with lunch. I’ll likely have things I’d like to accomplish later that day (other than getting intoxicated). Thus, my “lunch beer” will probably be something that hovers right around 5-6% ABV. Any more than that and I’ll have trouble accomplishing whatever happened to be my aim later in the day. In other words, I don’t often have Imperial Stouts with lunch.
However, if it’s later at night, or there isn’t anything particularly important on the docket, then I’ll dive into a bigger, higher ABV brew. The point is to taste enough different beers and educate your palate well enough that you can almost always find a desirable beer of either low or high gravity as befits a given situation.
This is probably the biggest factor for me. Deep down, I am not just a beer geek, but a lover of food. For me, there is no greater pleasure than a perfect pairing of beer and food. The two elements cease to be individuals and coalesce into a whole that is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. One recent experience was Black Tuesday paired with Deep-Fried Chocolate-Drizzled Bacon at The Bruery’s Reserve Society Barrel Tasting. Holy effing hell. The tannin and drying alcohol in the beer balanced out the thick fattiness of the breading and the big chocolaty flavor in the beer was amped up by the drizzle on the bacon. It was basically an umami-gasm.
That taster of Black Tuesday was my favorite beer at that moment. Had I not had the tempura-battered morsel of amazing in my mouth as well, my favorite beer would have been something else. The food I’m eating has everything to do with the beer I’m drinking. I am searching for an experience, not just a bunch of flavors.
If I’m eating something spicy, I’ll generally opt for a slightly maltier, more bready beer. I know some love IPAs and other hoppy beer with spicy food, but I find that hops just exacerbate the heat of the food. I want a beer that mellows out the spice and allows other flavors to shine through.
If I’m sitting down to a weekend breakfast and having an omelet made with goat cheese, I’ll probably opt for a Hefeweizen. The banana and clove flavors generally mesh well with breakfast and the high carbonation of the style helps scrub the palate clean. Indeed, my beer choices and food choices are inextricably connected.
As far as beer goes, I’m not generally a slave to season since I live in a very temperate region, but there are certainly times when it affects my drinking preferences. I love to cozy up to a big Belgian Quadrupel when the temperature dips a bit. By contrast, there are few things more enjoyable than quaffing a well-made Belgian Blond or Kolsch after a long bike ride in high heat. My answer to the “favorite beer” question can depend heavily on how much I’m sweating.
Lastly, I think the notion of having a favorite anything can be incredibly limiting. When one proclaims something a favorite, the proclamation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One thinks, “Well, this [blank] is my favorite beer, I have to drink it all the time.” Don’t get locked into that mentality. Taste lots of beer. Educate your palate. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have a favorite beer in a given style. I’ll certainly concede that I have my favorite Imperial Stout(s) or Double IPA(s), and when I want something from either of those styles I know what to reach for. However, that’s about as tightly as I’m willing to cabin things.
When you’ve educated your palate, your favorites will not only be based in context, but I believe they will yield greater enjoyment. You will have a “favorite beer with beef stew” or a “favorite beer with pork tacos” or maybe even a “favorite beer with existential literature” (La Fin du Monde somehow seems appropriate). With beer as with most things, greater knowledge leads to greater enjoyment. There are few things more empowering than knowing and having access to exactly what you’re in the mood for. So get to learning. In this case that means drinking a lot of different beer, what more incentive do you need?
Turkey Day Recommendations
I didn’t want to do an entire post on Thanksgiving pairings since it’s a topic that gets beaten to death every year, so I’ll give some pithy recommendations here.
A saison is always a winner. They pair well with nearly everything. They are easily palatable to wine drinkers and they have enough carbonation to scrub the palate clean of all those dense Thanksgiving flavors.
A true fruit lambic or other fruit-forward sour beer like La Folie (not the Acesulfame-K sweetened Lindeman’s garbage) can also be a treat. The acidity can stand up to the richness of the meal and will cut nicely through the fattier dishes while bringing out the sweetness in sides like cranberry sauce.
What do we usually have for dessert at Thanksgiving? Pie. Glorious Pie. With pumpkin pie, I’d favor something sturdy since the dish has so much spice and such a thick texture. A Belgian Strong Dark or Quadrupel like Chimay Grande Reserve or Rochefort 10 would do nicely.
With apple pie I’d take a different tack. Apple flavor in beer is usually a flaw but is acceptable in Tripels, which can also be nicely dry and spicy. A tripel would be the perfect compliment to the spice and sweet/sour mix of apple pie.
Lastly, my girlfriend makes an awesome blueberry pie. I’ve paired both gueuze and saison with it and had great success. Both styles have some nice underripe fruit notes that balance out the sweetness of the filling and also bring out some of that great tang from the blueberry skin.
Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy!