Tampa Bay Beer Week pairs suds with interesting food

When pairing beer with food, the Refinery’s chef de cuisine Eric McHugh says he wants a “dish that stands up to the beer and a beer that stands up to the dish.”
When pairing beer with food, the Refinery’s chef de cuisine Eric McHugh says he wants a “dish that stands up to the beer and a beer that stands up to the dish.”
Published March 5, 2013

Think beer only goes with wings and pizza? Think again.

Try ice cream. And wild boar and alligator. And chocolate pie. And pulled pork lapped with a glaze of imperial stout, bourbon and maple syrup.

So, really, just about anything.

This week, there has been a lot of suds-sipping around the Tampa Bay area at the 200 or so events sponsored by Tampa Bay Beer Week, which concludes Sunday. From Dunedin to Ybor City and nearly all points (and bars) in between, most events have centered on sampling small-batch, artisan craft beers, a category of beermaking that has exploded here in recent years. But others have focused on food, specifically using beer in cooking or cocktails, or simply pairing it with amiable flavors, just as one would wine.

On Tuesday, the Refinery in Tampa matched chocolate pie to fruity beers and the Spot Grill in St. Petersburg paired Melbourne's Florida Beer Company offerings with wild game tacos. The Renaissance Vinoy Resort also teamed with Florida Beer Company for its weekly Sunday brunch, adding beer to its free-flowing champagne.

And Wednesday, Mr. Dunderbak's in Tampa is hosting a Sour Beer and Ice Cream Social, during which tart beers made from wild yeast will be paired with ice cream and crepes. Beer reductions double as sauces. Call before you head over; it's likely to be sold out.

Beer: It's not just for peanuts and baseball anymore.

The art of pairing

Many beer geeks — that's what they call themselves and it's not a negative thing — think beer is actually more food-friendly than wine. Whereas wine comes from grapes, beermakers play with sweet barley, bitter hops and bready yeast and then add all sorts of spices and flavorings, plus get funky with nuts, chocolate and even fruits and vegetables. So logically, that means beer could be paired with all sorts of food.

Chris Sherman, Tampa Bay food and spirits writer and former Times food critic, knows that winespeak has devolved into a curious lingua franca that often borders on the silly, at least for the less knowledgeable. Discussions of "chocolate notes," "long finishes of tobacco" and "grassy elements" are phrases well known to the wine community but garner eye rolls from more casual drinkers.

"People are just beginning to discover and sort out all the zillion types of beer," Sherman says. "There's a temptation to make it as complicated as we've made wine."

The trick, he says, when matching food to beer, is to consider the spectrum of flavors, from "hoppy to tart and sour and on up to things that have more malt. The darker ones."

"If your food is heavy, you don't want the heaviest beer," he says. "If the food is light, it can take a heavier beer."

Often when people go to a Mexican restaurant, they order Dos Equis or Corona. At a Thai place, they ask for Singha and at Indian curries, a Kingfisher. Yes, those are Mexican, Thai and Indian beers, but they don't necessarily go with the broad spectrum of flavors in those countries' cuisines.

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Explore all your options

A little experimentation is in order, Sherman says. Next time you go out for Mexican food, have one person order a lighter Corona and another get a dark Negra Modelo and then share them. You'll be able to taste for yourself what it does for the food.

Sherman also suggests an at-home cheese-and-beer tasting to get better acquainted with how the grainy alcohol complements — or detracts — from food. Start with mild cheeses, such as fontina or emmentaler, with a pilsner, which has Czech roots, and work your way up to dark porter, born in Britain, with blue, stinky or aged cheeses.

"It's a lot simpler than people make it out to be. Don't sweat it," he says. Try lots of beer, especially the local brews, Sherman adds.

In the kitchen

Eric McHugh, chef de cuisine at Tampa's Refinery, is using Terrapin's Moo-Hoo Chocolate Milk Stout in his burly twist on a French silk pie, topped with a chocolate streusel and kirschwasser meringue. "Then we blow it with a torch" to brown, he says.

McHugh will replace half the cream in the recipe with the chocolate stout made by Terrapin brewery in Athens, Ga., and then pair the pie with three fruity beers: Abita (Louisiana) Strawberry Harvest Lager, Harpoon (Massachusetts) UFO Raspberry Hefeweizen and Lost Coast (California) Tangerine Wheat. (The pie and pairings will be on the Refinery's menu through Sunday, the last day of Beer Week.)

When pairing beer with food, McHugh says, he wants a "dish that stands up to the beer and a beer that stands up to the dish."

"I follow the general guidelines, typically IPAs (India pale ales) stand up to spicy; fruit and lambic beers go well with chocolates and strong game meats; Belgian triples go with strong, intense flavors; pilsners and American pale ales go with delicate fried fish," McHugh says.

Chef John LoScalzo of LOKO Cuisine in Tampa went local for the star dish at last Sunday's sold-out Eggs and Kegs event at Cigar City Brewing. He mixed Cigar City's much-prized and extremely limited Hunahpu's Imperial Stout with bourbon and maple syrup and ladled it over a cornbread cake topped with ancho chile pulled pork. And he didn't stop there.

The required brunch potato dish was a cheesy layering with eggs and a tomato-chili sauce infused with Bell's Brewery (Michigan) Hopslam Double IPA, which is stronger with more pronounced hops than a regular IPA. "The beer is little more bitter and floral," he says. LoScalzo also served his "beermosas," half IPA or wheat beer and half peach-tangerine puree.

(LoScalzo will cater another Eggs and Kegs brunch at Cigar City on May 19 with the main event being espresso- and spice-crusted rib-eye steak and Cigar City Maduro Brown Ale caramelized onion and bacon marmalade. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased through his website, or with cash at the brewery.)

He tries to mimic the flavors of the dish with the beer. For instance, LoScalzo says, Cigar City's Hunahpu's has chilies and cinnamon in it so it makes sense that it would meld well in a spicy sauce. As for the interesting name, pronounced HOON-ah-pooz, it comes from Mayan mythology.

"You are looking for things that would enhance the flavors of the beer or even offset the flavor," LoScalzo says. "With something super spicy, you might look for a sweet beer, or seasonal stuff and ciders. A lot of the IPAs, which have hoppy, bitter notes, would go nicely with something sweet."

Ben Harris, owner and chef at the Spot Grill in St. Petersburg, served up his wild game tacos on Tuesday with the popular Florida Beer Company beers. He spooned hearty rabbit, wild boar, alligator, quail and venison into flour tortillas with a variety of toppings. The wild boar was roasted and braised with diced rutabagas and the quail was wrapped in bacon and deep-fried, then chopped and garnished with spicy aioli, queso blanco and shredded lettuce.

Harris says he knows that some people get all wine-like when they pair beer with food, but for his game tacos, he wanted to have fun and "not be so chef-y."

"The nature of the tacos is a little outlandish," he says. "I am serving Florida Beer's Swamp Ape Double IPA with the alligator because, well, they both live in the swamp."

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at or (727) 893-8586.