Just Add Beer

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As the craft beer industry has boomed, so has the proliferation of food trucks, the focus on locally sourced ingredients, and a premium placed on culinary artistry generally. It’s no wonder then that some of those streams have been crossed, with artisan ales and lagers showing up in haute cuisine. Beer is often used in batters to make light and crispy fried fish or chicken, and in slower cooking applications, beer can add a silky richness. Over the winter months, a hearty stew makes a comforting repast, and though the days are getting warmer now, rainy nights still call for stew while April showers are outside clamoring for May flowers.

Beer beef stewTroy Witherspoon was instrumental in ramping up the pub menu at Petrol Station and featured an excellent goat stew braised in stout beers such as Oskar Blues Ten Fidy, and Underbelly’s Chris Shepherd recommended a Flemish-style beef stew to Esquire for Super Bowl Sunday. There’s a fairly simple recipe over at the Pioneer Woman which uses nothing more than your average adjunct lager, if you want to try one at home. A few flourishes and gastronomic liberties aside, the basic steps are largely the same: caramelize some onions and garlic, brown the meat, add beef stock and beer, then cook low and slow for a couple of hours. Stews have long been prized as an effective way to break down tougher cuts of meat, and enzymes in the beer help that tenderizing process along.

This winter, I undertook a bit of scientific investigation by making the exact same stew several times, controlling as best I could for variables, each time changing only the beer I used. The first time around, I hadn’t yet envisioned the longitudinal study, so I started with what is perhaps the most sacrilicious of beers for cooking, a highly regarded and difficult to obtain beer that I had actually waited in line for a couple of hours to get: Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout. Beer nerds gasped and rent their garments when I made this choice public knowledge, and in retrospect, I think I had already consumed a few beers and the BCBS may have been the only stout in the fridge. Nevertheless, into the pot it went, and honestly, according to my household test subjects, it was the best version of the stew all winter. I probably shouldn’t have started the experiment from the top rope, but c’est la vie. The 14% ABV cooked down, while the robust stout body and rich barrel aging contributed a silky smoothness to the stew, and the beef was pull-apart tender. The investigation promised to be a tasty one.

Next I took it down a few notches, hewing closer to the basic lager recipe, though unable to bring myself to use a macrobrewed adjunct. The primary result devolves on the difference between ales (which include stouts) and lagers, with the former usually being a little more floral and estery and the latter being a little cleaner and crisper. The body of the stew was noticeably lighter, with the paler malt allowing more of the stew’s acidity to come through. I later tried this with the Baba Black Lager from Uinta, and while the body of the stew was still lighter, the darker malt contributed a sweetness that better balanced the stew’s acidity.

Lagers are typically lower in alcohol content, usually around 4-5%, so for my next test I ramped the alcohol back up, using a Widdershins Oak Aged Barleywine from Left Hand. The body was lighter than the BCBS, but the silky barrel-aged character was still present, and the higher alcohol served to enhance the flavors of the dish. The volatile alcohol molecules help carry aromas aloft, and they also bond with both fat and water molecules in the dish, infusing the meat with the flavors of the savory stock. Simply put, the higher ABV of barrel aged stouts and barleywines leave more alcohol to work its magic as it cooks down over a lengthy stewing process.

In the end, the characteristics imparted into the stew by different types of beer tracked closely with the types of beers themselves, based on body, malt, and alcohol. The flavors of the beer you use tend to grow more pronounced the longer the cook time your recipe calls for, so you could even use a hoppy Double IPA if you were so inclined: the higher alcohol would certainly enhance the flavors, but the bitterness could get to the point of overwhelming. For my own tastes, I found that darker malts and higher alcohol contents yielded the best stew. If you haven’t stepped outside since you drove in to the office this morning, the rain is falling along with the mercury, and this may be one of the last grey, chilly nights of the outgoing winter. Cozy up on the couch, rewatch last night’s gratifying Game of Thrones episode, toss some beer in that pot of stew and see how the once lowly fermented beverage is now elevating food with the craft beer boom.

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2 comments for “Just Add Beer

  1. Rob Paiva
    April 14, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    I say the next themed event we create should be a brew stew contest. What say thee?

    • April 14, 2014 at 9:23 pm

      Methinks ye deserve a MacArthur genius grant.

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