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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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 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.”
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.”
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 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:
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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