"Sweet, caramelized onions on a cheeseburger will resonate beautifully with the malty caramel notes of a Vienna lager."
Continuing with the Good Beer Month theme, we'd like to introduce you to New York City's first beer sommelier, Samuel Merritt, who shares his tips for food and beer pairings, where to find the best beer lists in the city, and how he was inspired by Napoleon Dynamite.
Name: Samuel Merritt
Location: New York City
Occupation: Beer Expert, advocate, beer sommelier
How did you become a beer expert? I sold for the Craft Brewer's Guild beer distributor and Brooklyn Brewery for ten years. They were obsessive with our (the salespeople's) beer education and pulled us from the field whenever possible for training on every aspect of beer. We were lucky to have been taught a lot by our brewmaster Garrett Oliver, who, for a very busy brewmaster, spent a good deal of time with us at sales meetings. He is a real hero of mine. I'm also a curious guy and a bit of a book worm so, I read the works of Michael Jackson "The Beer Hunter," Alan Eames, Charlie Papazian, Greg Smith, Tom Standage and many others. Once I started learning about beer, I couldn't stop.
You were recently named New York's first Cicerone-certified beer sommelier. How did you earn this distinction? I'm one of about 30 certified Cicerones in the U.S. To earn the distinction, I took the first-level Certified Beer Server exam online and passed, then I studied and I took the second-level exam, a three-hour written exam followed by two hours of blind tasting, off-flavor flaw recognition, and demonstration of the technical aspects of draught beer.
The toughest part for me was blind tasting and recognizing various flaws in the beers. The analogy for the blind tasting is the scene from the movie Napoleon Dynamite when he is tasting milk at the state fair and identifies one as from a cow that wandered into an onion patch. Same deal.
The highest level of the Cicerone Program is Master Cicerone. As of now, there are none of those...
Any good rules of thumb to use when pairing beer and food? First, trust your instinct. If you taste a beer or food, and then think about what you might enjoy with it, chances are you will. Next, be aware of intensity and match delicate foods with delicate beers and so on.
For example, the robust spiciness of an American pale ale like Sierra Nevada sings along in festive harmony with a spicy dish like pad thai. Also, different elements within each beer will express themselves as resonators or contrasts with each food. For example, sweet, caramelized onions on a cheeseburger will resonate beautifully with the malty caramel notes of a Vienna lager and then those same onions will contrast with that beer's bright, bitter, hoppy finish. In perhaps the most famous beer-and-food pairing, the roastiness and balanced bitterness of a dry, light-bodied stout will contrast nicely with the sweetness of live oyster flesh. The carbonation, or effervescence of the beer will also play an important role with regard to the texture and fats in a food. Highly effervescent beers like bottle conditioned Belgian styles will cut the fat of fried foods wonderfully. The bubbles in beer can create a tremendous interplay of flavors and textures.
Are there a few good, "go-with-just-about-anything" beers out there? No, why would you stop at a few and put those beers to an impossible task like that? There are versatile beer but, there are also about 13,000 beers available in the U.S. Try as many beers as possible and narrow it down for yourselves. The kinder, gentler advice is to go find a few brands that you really enjoy from the following styles: a delicate, dry German Helles, a robust Vienna-style lager, a Trappist dubbel or quadruple, a Belgian white ale (or witbieren), a traditional German hefe, a traditional lambic, an American IPA, an American light beer (to mix in cocktails), a robust porter, and a dry stout.
What is your all-time-favorite beer and food pairing? Oh no, I very much hope that I haven't had it yet. One of my favorites though is melon and prosciutto with German Hefeweizen. This style of beer is fruity and spicy and usually has a bit of smoke in the background. The salty prosciutto will contrast with the fruit from the beer and the melon while the melon is, well, melon and that will compliment fruity notes in the beer. Another favorite is any kind of cheesecake and a raspberry or cherry lambic, not because I personally like it very much, but because I've made so many people so happy and ecstatic with it over the years.
What's the most unique beer you've ever had? Probably the Schlenkerla Helles Lager from Bamberg. Its made in the same equipment as the rouchbiers (smoked malt beers), but it doesn't have smoked malt in it. The kettle and tanks impart a noticeable but very subtle smokiness to an otherwise delicately hopped, dry, bright golden lager. It's exquisite to me.
Tell us about your involvement with Daniel Boulud's beer-centric DBGB. I did two beer dinners at Restaurant Daniel in anticipation of the opening of DBGB. These dinners excited the beer suppliers and distributors of New York and sponsored by the French beer Kasteel Cru. They got some good press for everyone and considered a milestone for beer in New York. I was excited and honored to be hosting beer dinners at such a prestigious restaurant. Other than those dinners, I can claim no credit whatsoever for what is happening at DBGB with regards to beer.
Tell us a bit about your company, the Civilization of Beer. Civilization of Beer is a beer education consulting company I founded in the fall of 2006. I'm happy to report that it's been growing and evolving since. If you look closely at the 500+ professional culinary programs available in the U.S. and try to find professional beer training, you'll be very disappointed.
But, if you are looking to spend a lot of time and money learning about wine, it's certainly available. The first goal of Civilization of Beer is to close the gap between beer studies and wine studies in the professional culinary community and return beer to its proper place at the American table. I spend most of my time preparing and orchestrating seminars for distributor sales forces (whom I consider to be culinary professionals too) and the rest consulting for various brands, orchestrating private and public recreational tastings, and doing philanthropic work.
Any upcoming events that Serious Eaters can attend? My next public events are all at Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan. In chronological order, they are: Beer Drinking for Couples on September 3; Beers of Germany: Oktoberfest beginning October 3; Beer 101 on October 10, and Beer 102 on November 7. I also send out an e-newsletter every six weeks or so listing events. You can sign-up at the website www.civilizationofbeer.com.
Describe your dream New York meal (restaurant, dishes, company?). It's probably late at night, with a few good friends after some kind of event where we've all made some money together and everyone who attended had a completely amazing experience. A victory dinner of sorts. We would be at Les Halles and share steak tartare and moules frites and then I would have steak frites medium-rare. I'm not really a dessert guy but, I would finish this meal with crème brulee and a Maker's Mark on the rocks.
Favorite burger? Peter Luger.
Favorite bagel? Ess-a-Bagel
Best late-night eats? Blue Ribbon. Sorry to be unoriginal but, there's a reason we all go there.
Undiscovered gem? Snacky. Not tellin' where it is if you don't already know.
What's in your fridge that you'd be embarrassed to tell us about? Frozen turkey sausage patties. A feeble attempt to curb a serious bacon addiction.
Food you won't eat? Or beer you won't drink? I won't eat frozen pizza or frozen pizza rolls. Fresh pizza would be too jealous and we would break up. I will drink any beer out there as long as its been delivered to my glass with the brewer's intent still intact.
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