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A plated croquette with a black ale beer behind it

Bacon, brats and brews

Our senses get confused. Here’s how we can use that to help figure out what beers to pair with different foods.

July 26, 2019

By Cory Phare

When you crack open a cold one, are you mindful of your suds?

Your beer would be better if you were, says Scott Kerkmans, professor and director of the Beer Industry Program at Metropolitan State University of Denver – and it’s especially important when pairing beer and food.

“We’re constantly bombarded by stimuli with a sensory assault every day,” he said. “When you step back and recognize this, you become more mindful – you’re able to focus on the characteristics of your senses intermingling.”

Chef Jason Rice creating the bacon cotton candy that served as the final pairing. Photo by Sara Hertwig
Chef Jason Rice creating the bacon cotton candy that served as the final pairing. Photo by Sara Hertwig

Our senses were central to the recent MSU Denver hospitality pairing event, “Bacon, brats and brews: a guided sensory tour of 5 beers, 5 courses, 5 senses.”

Kerkmans and Chef Jason Rice treated attendees to student-prepared contemporary dining experiences, discussing the pairing combinations – all while prompted by a sensory element to catalyze the interactive interplating discussion.


RELATED: 5 chef-approved bourbon and barbecue pairings


“The key to creating a successful pairing menu is having everything taste good while having a meaningful dining experience with an interesting story to tell,” Kerkmans said. “If you’re looking to pair multiple courses, you want to make sure to capture the guests’ attention with a reason to care about why things go together. 

“And even if a course doesn’t work perfectly – knowing you won’t please everyone – it’s important to justify why that specific selection was made.” 

Boiled peanuts, a staple of Southern cuisine, match the equally light intensity of a crisp, easy-drinking lager. Photo by Sara Hertwig
Boiled peanuts, a staple of Southern cuisine, match the equally light intensity of a crisp, easy-drinking lager. Photo by Sara Hertwig

Hors d’oeuvres course: Why mindfulness matters

Boiled peanuts paired with a lager
Suggested beers: Coors Banquet, Upslope Craft Lager

This traditionally Southern dish paired with a crisp lager was purposefully served to guests as they arrived and milled about, transitioning from the day into evening. The discussion that followed explored targeted isolation of the senses – and how our brains are working overtime.

“We wanted to ask people if they were paying attention – to the smells in the room, the green of the grass outside, any of the million pieces of sensory input we’re bombarded with every day,” Kerkmans said. “So when you’re eating, were you paying attention to the flavor interactions?

“Everything affects the entire experience. For this hors d’oeuvres course, we wanted to start out light with a balanced intensity.” 

The light creaminess of pimento cheese and smokiness of bacon defied the olfactory expectations of a traditional deviled egg, pairing well with the Tivoli Roadrunner Red in the foreground. Photo by Sara Hertwig
The light creaminess of pimento cheese and smokiness of bacon defied the olfactory expectations of a traditional deviled egg, pairing well with the Tivoli Roadrunner Red in the foreground. Photo by Sara Hertwig

Course 1: olfactory

House-Made Bacon and Pimento Pate du Sud Deviled Egg paired with an Irish red
Suggested beers: Tivoli Roadrunner Red, Ska Brewing Pinstripe

To separate out smell, attendees donned opaque eye masks as this dish was served sight unseen; the reinvention of a classic dish replaced the tangy profile of mustard, vinegar and paprika with a smooth pimento cheese and the savory bite of bacon. This paired with a Tivoli Roadrunner Red, available on tap at the Tivoli taproom and the proceeds of which support the MSU Denver beer program.


Recreate the course with this pimento cheese and bacon deviled eggs recipe.


Kerkmans also explained the importance of water-based minerals in providing certain flavor profiles. 

“We have different styles of beer because of the different sources of water found throughout the world,” he said. “For example, Irish reds taste the way they do because of specific minerals, like gypsum, found in their water source.”

The partially deconstructed pork belly slider was a reimagining of the classic chicken and waffles, matching wonderfully with Duchess De Bourgogne, a Flemish red. Photo by Sara Hertwig
The partially deconstructed pork belly slider was a reimagining of the classic chicken and waffles, matching wonderfully with Duchess De Bourgogne, a Flemish red. Photo by Sara Hertwig

Course 2: vision

Savory waffle “Slider” with basalmic-braised pork belly and cherry compote paired with Flanders red ale
Suggested beers: Duchesse de Bourgogne, Rodenbach Classic

The second course arrived artfully arranged, a partially deconstructed take on chicken and waffles that explored intermingling of sweet, sour, umami and fat flavor elements harmonizing deliciously with the balsamic profile of the sour beer.

Kerkmans detailed how the presentation complemented the combination by also showing a contrasting plate of the same ingredients, served as a mushed-up mess. 

“Sight leads us into tasting what is good; depending on context, how food arrives can impact us,” he said. “It’s all about writing the best story possible for the dining experience.”

The Good River Gunny Black Lager being poured here was a comparatively simple pairing to the complex flavors found in the black-eyed pea croquette and andouille sausage. Photo by Sara Hertwig
The Good River Gunny Black Lager being poured here was a comparatively simple pairing to the complex flavors found in the black-eyed pea croquette and andouille sausage. Photo by Sara Hertwig

Course 3– gustation

Black Eye Pea Croquette, house-made andouille and tomato gravy paired with black lager
Suggested beers: Brooklyn Brewery Insulated, New Belgium 1554

This course was a tale of two distinct constituent pairings. Clear sweetness and bitterness with a light nose stood as a clear distinction to the andouille kick and aromatic spices of the crumbly croquette. 

“This one leans more to contrasting flavors,” Kerkmans said. “We wanted to show off basic tastes versus complex aromas, keeping things simple to showcase the complexity of the food.”

Bubbles from the brut IPA were a texturally interesting way to cool the spice from a jalapeño elk brat in this fourth course. Photo by Sara Hertwig
Bubbles from the brut IPA were a texturally interesting way to cool the spice from a jalapeño elk brat in this fourth course. Photo by Sara Hertwig

Course 4: somatosensory perception

Jalapeño Elk Brat with pilsner honey mustard paired with a Brut IPA
Suggested beers: 4 Noses Bubblin’ Brut, Tivoli Brut IPA

Kerkmans explained how the capsaicin in chile peppers affects our trigeminal nerve, regulating our interpretations of hot and cold. It’s why attendees experienced heat from the jalapeño sausage, which arrived adorned with a house-made pickle, while experiencing the cooling effect from the champagne-like bubbles of the Brut IPA.

“Touch affects flavor,” Kerkmans said. “That carbonic bite creates a sharpness on the tongue that’s a somatosensory experience.” 

Bacon cotton candy on a chili cocoa pot de crème paired with a milk stout created a sweet, rounded finish to the meal. Photo by Sara Hertwig
Bacon cotton candy on a chili cocoa pot de crème paired with a milk stout created a sweet, rounded finish to the meal. Photo by Sara Hertwig

Course 5: Bringing it all together … What, no auditory perception?

Bacon-infused chocolate sugar floss and pot de créme paired with milk stout
Suggested beers: Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout, Boulder Beer Shake

Bacon cotton candy is what happens when your inner child grows up enough to get access to a commercial kitchen.  

Arriving atop a decadent cocoa-rich Pot de Crème, the light chile bite provided just a slight contrast to the complementary chocolate flavors, as Kerkmans noted the importance of ending this dining story with a smooth, rounded finish that evoked attendees to reflect on their constituent courses as a whole.

“Our senses – and us – are all coming together to create this shared experience,” Kerkmans said. “We weren’t actively thinking about it, but it would have colored our interpretation in a different – and incomplete – way if we weren’t here together, talking about it.”

Or, put another way: It’s the table that brings us together but what’s shared around it that sustains us.

“It’s that interaction and that community feeling,” Kerkmans said. “That’s the hospitality effect: You want to give folks something to talk about.”


Interested in learning more about pairing alcohol and food? Check out this upcoming pairing event developed and hosted by MSU Denver food and beverage experts:

  • August 26 (Monday) Stop and Smell the Rosé with Michael Wray, Chef Rice and Joseph LaVioletteTaste five shades of pink paired with delectable summer flavors while learning more about the ever-so-popular wine.5:30-7:30 p.m.; Registration, $38

All events are open to the public with a discount for University faculty/staff. For more information, visit the event pages or contact Susan Conder.


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