Arts & Entertainment

Savvy Drinkers Demanding Better Beer

ATLANTA — Wisconsin writer Lucy Saunders is one of the most knowledgeable and exuberant authorities on the subject of beer and food.

Saunders' first book, "Cooking With Beer" (Time-Life Books, 1996) spawned a popular Web site: Her most recent books – "Grilling With Beer" (F&B Communications, $21.95) and "The Best of American Beer & Food: Pairing & Cooking With Craft Beer" (Brewers Publications, $22.95) – are lively compendiums of recipes, style and pairing guides, and profiles of beer chefs. For a taste of all that and more, check Saunders' blog: www.bestofamerican

I caught up with Saunders while she was in Atlanta for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Expo, where she was busy researching barbecue trends and grill designs for future stories. But the first thing she wanted to do was sample some Southeastern craft brews and get a flavor of the local beer scene, so we went to Brick Store Pub in Decatur. Here's a bit of what we talked about.

Q: Your latest book is "The Best of American Beer & Food: Pairing and Cooking With Craft Beer." Explain why all those words in the title are important?

A: Most people still think of pub grub basics – burgers and pizza – when thinking of culinary matches for a glass of beer. Yet the reality is that chefs all across North America recognize the broad spectrum of flavors possible in craft beer, and savvy drinkers are demanding better beer at the table. The term "craft beer" replaces the earlier description of "microbrewery," as so many regional brewers have grown, and are brewing hundreds of thousands of barrels per year. Craft brewers use real malts and other quality ingredients, often with immense creativity in adapting traditional beer styles to the tastes of their customers.

Q: Part of the book is divided into six geographic regions. The Northwest, California and Colorado have long been hot spots for craft beer – how do you think the Southeast is coming along?

A: The region has many more craft breweries and befitting the trend toward the Southeast drawing a wider population, those breweries are appealing to affluent consumers willing to invest in hand-crafted beer to enjoy with specialty cheeses, artisan breads and locally grown foods. Thanks to progress in legislation permitting a wider range of beer styles of different strengths, craft brewers in the Southeast can be more creative.

Q: It's already grilling season here in Atlanta, and your book "Grilling With Beer" presents lots of really good recipes. But first it asks the fundamental question: "Why grill with beer?"

A: Craft beer is the best companion to the smoky, seared flavors of grilled foods. When I began talking to people about grilling with beer, the common response was, "Is there any other way?" The malts in craft beer add natural sweetness to marinades, mops, glazes and barbecue sauces, and enhance the browning of grilled foods. And the effervescence in beer makes it more refreshing to drink with barbecue, which is often very spicy or very rich.

Q: It would be crazy to ask you to name your favorite beers or foods, but are there some surefire pairings you've discovered that novices should try?

A: I love pairing craft beer with specialty cheeses and chocolate, and those are pairings that novices can enjoy with ease as no cooking is required. A sweet stout with a wedge of aged cheddar, or a hoppy IPA with a tangy Asiago cheese, or a malty brown ale with a buttery, soft ripened brie – these are some of my favorites. I also like bottle-conditioned ales with dried fruits such as apricots or plums, and dark chocolate. The bottle-conditioned ales have live yeast that contribute fruity esters and aromatics, which meld well with the flavors of the dried fruits and roasted notes in chocolate.

Q: What are the most interesting beer trends you're spotting right now?

A: What is amazing to me is the continued creativity of the small brewer in adapting to very challenging economics. Water is precious, and many brewers in the Southeast are adapting their brewing techniques to conserve resources. Hops and malts are expensive and in short supply, but by adding culinary ingredients such as herbs and spices to new recipes, and often teaming up with local chefs in events and tastings, North American craft brewers are proving the adage, "beer is food."


        Bob Townsend writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.