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Beer goes better with steak, cheese -- even ice cream

By Fred Tasker

Knight Ridder Newspapers

You don't want to drink cabernet sauvignon with grilled steak. That's piling fruit on meat. What you want is a nice, dark beer.

"People wonder why a brown ale goes better with steak," says Garrett Oliver. "It brings a flavor of caramelization that wine doesn't have. When you create those complementary flavors, there's a whole different interaction on your palate, in your brain.

"It makes you say, 'Oooh."'

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Of course, Oliver is a brewer, and author of "The Brewmaster's Table."

"It's up to brewers to show people the talent beer has," chimes in Phil Markowski. "Beer has become homogenized and industrialized. It's usually represented as a low-brow beverage. I'd like to see it elevated."

Markowski is also a brewer, and author of "Farmhouse Ales."

Oliver and Markowski are not just a couple of beer buddies spouting off. They're "preachers and proselytizers," suds professionals who travel the world, judging beer competitions, competing against wine stewards in food-beverage pairing contests.

"I've done at least 200 beer-food matching dinners over the years -- from Denmark to Brazil," Oliver says.

You haven't lived, the two say, until you've tried such classic matches as mussels with a crisp Belgian white ale; short ribs with a malty Belgian dubbel beer; cassoulet with an earthy, herbal biere de garde; fresh goat cheese with a zingy wheat beer; Christmas goose with a rich and spicy American pumpkin ale.

"Beer and cheese are a natural pairing," says Oliver. "They're both fermented, which means they're intentionally spoiled in order to preserve them. The two processes are similar in many ways.

"It's different with wine. To match cheese, wine has to be corked (spoiled). It's the only way to get those damp-earth, rotting-leaf flavors that come naturally to a malt beverage."

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Beer's advantage doesn't end there, they say.

"There's a much greater variety of flavors in beer than in wine," says Markowski. "It's not just straightforward malt and hops. Beer can be floral, spicy. Some farmhouse ales have edible flowers -- lavender, rose hips, chamomile. Even hops are a flower."

And another thing: "Great beer is an affordable luxury," says Oliver. "A wine can be more than $200 a bottle. I can afford the best beer in the world every day."

"Beer is seldom more than $15 a bottle," says Markowski. "I'd like to see it at $25 or $30; it deserves a more exalted place."

Both take umbrage at the idea that a five-course dinner with a different beer with each course might be too filling.

"Take smaller samples," says Oliver. "You don't have to have 12-ounce servings."

"Two to five ounces is sufficient," says Markowski. "And don't feel obliged to finish it."

"Beer's carbonization can break up heavy foods," Oliver adds. "After a beer dinner, people are not nearly as staggered by alcohol. People wander out of wine dinners in quite a state. Wine is, in fact, heavier -- especially the huge American wines."

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A nagging problem, the two agree, is that even restaurants sophisticated enough to let customers bring their own wine by paying a corkage fee won't extend the same courtesy to beer. It outrages Oliver.

"I would demand that the manager come to my table and explain him or herself. There's no excuse for not allowing corkage."

Oh, and if you have doubts about matching beer with dessert, they've got you covered.

"Some of the heavier stouts taste like coffee," says Oliver. "It's a nice contrast with vanilla ice cream."

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