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A Sensory Expert Explains How to Create Unique Liquor & Beer Pairings

Gwen Conley, one of the beverage industry’s top sensory experts, wants you to forget the rules

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What is pairing? The short answer: Pairing happens when you combine two different elements and get an interaction.  

Pairing is a personal thing, so the idea of one size fits all in terms of pairing this beer or booze with this-or-that food item is outdated, and a bit egotistical. If I were to tell you that my favorite ice cream was mint chocolate chip, that doesn’t mean I think it should be your favorite, too. And you aren’t going to try and talk me out of it, right?  

Let’s start with the example of going out to eat with a group of people. Once the group agree on a destination, it is highly likely that everyone will order the same dishes and beverages. And thank goodness for that! Our food and drink landscape would be pretty boring if we all liked the same things.

That’s where the idea of pairing “rules” breaks down.

Just like scanning a menu for things that sound good, the first step in sensory pairing is to think about what you, and only you, like. Do you prefer sweet or salty, sour or savory, spicy or subtle?  

Don’t be shy. Talk about it. Start observing how others make their selections, ask your dining companions about their likes and dislikes, and why. This could be the start of a sensory party!

Here’s the thing, I can’t  tell you what tastes work for you.

What I can do is help you approach pairings in a new way by examining food and drink within the context of sensory consciousness.

There are different concepts for pairing.  You can start simple and move towards experimental.  

Let’s walk through how to do that using the straight forward pairing of a dark chocolate, salted-caramel pretzel paired with an imperial stout.  

Let’s deconstruct the ingredients to understand why this works.  

You enjoy chocolate and stouts have chocolate notes. Like pairs with like.

In this combination, the bitterness of the stout balances and amplifies the sweetness of the chocolate.  

Good. But what else is happening?

The caramel and salt help to cut the bitter factor of the beer and the dark chocolate.  

What else has salty or caramel notes?

Now let’s try pairing this pretzel with a Mexican lager, like Mason Ale Work’s Cerveza Respeto, or some barrel-rested gin.  

Take a bite of the pretzel and then a sip of the Mexican lager. A salty component is followed by notes of buttery, toasted crackers and a fudge-like finish.

Now try the same thing with the barrel-rested gin. Suddenly the pretzel has more of a milk chocolate mousse finish with notes of cinnamon.  

WOW, right?  You have moved from a basic pairing to the unexpected and experimental.  

I always recommend experimenting with at least two different beverages to really appreciate the different sensory experiences and perceptions.

Try pairing lemon curd and shortbread cookies with a Blonde Ale, like St. Archer’s Blonde. Does this combination amplify the tartness? Does it make the Blonde taste more like a shandy?

Now try it with a Hazy IPA, like Modern Times Hazy Mosaic. Does the curd now taste more like zest? A sip of barrel-rested gin might bring to mind herbed lemon toast, while a whiskey might make the combination more reminiscent of lemon meringue pie.

I personally like to pair phyllo cups filled with goat cheese and hot pepper jelly with a Saison, like Coronado’s Saison By the Sea, or Firestone Walker’s Blonde Ale, as these pairings suddenly bring to mind sweet and sour Thai food.

The same snack paired with a spiced rum might emphasize the sweet and warming spices of rum and jelly, while a vodka soda with lime could emphasized the goat cheese and provide a clean finish.

Roasted Corn with Tajin butter can transform into the warming sensation of eating buttered corn bread when paired with a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and suddenly taste more sweet than fiery when enjoyed with Karl Strauss’ Red Trolley Amber Ale.

A bourbon could highlight the roasted notes and sweet honey flavors of the corn, while Tequila would amplify the citrus notes and spicy finish.

Lost Abbey’s Lost & Found, Belgian Dubbel would be a natural playmate of sweet, smokey barbeque, but a Coffee Stout, like AleSmith’s Speedway Stout could actually enhance the roasted sweet char flavors and create a fuller, umami-like mouthfeel.  

Rye whiskey will bring to mind classic smoke and oak, while vodka mules might bring out an unexpected spicy ginger-element and highlight the tomato-base of the sauce.

The key is to think deeply about what you like and why, and to keep experimenting.

About the Author

An 18-year veteran of the craft brewing world, sensory expert, educator, and coauthor of Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide from the Pairing Pros, Gwen Conley is now the Director of Quality at Cutwater Spirits in San Diego.

Take a Class with Gwen

Learn more about becoming a conscious taster, the science behind how your senses work, and how to create fun sensory experiences at your next gathering by registering for Gwen's Food Pairings & Beer Dinners course at UC San Diego Extension.  

Her class is part of the UCSD Extension Brewing Certificate program, which offers academic and practical training for entry-level brewing professionals. The certificate can be completed in 12 to 18 months with flexible online and in-person classes ranging from recipe formulation, yeast and fermentation processes to sensory evaluation and financial management. Learn more at: extension.ucsd.edu

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