Sick of meals paired with wine ‘flights’? Sommeliers driving you crazy with too much detail as your food goes cold? Nick finds out that USA leads the way in exploring the interplay between wood, fire and smoke with food paired with beer

American craft brewers are taking beer pairings to a whole new level by thinking that types of wood, and how chefs use them, play the same role in food as hops do in beer.

Wood doesn’t just provide heat, it imparts different flavour characteristics depending on the time, temperature, ignition point and smoke. 

The char you get on grilled food, the Maillard reaction, derives from the chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars.  When brewers roast malts for in porters and stouts it’s the same chemical reaction so the ales match the grilled food.

The woods used, such as ash, birch, oak, cedar or juniper, bring a subtle flavour difference to each dish. Beer with its wide flavour spectrum and mouthfeel is the perfect partner for foods with a high fat content and strong flavours.

Invited to new London restaurant, Humo by The Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade association representing small and independent American craft brewers, I had the chance to experience the interplay between smoke, fire, beer and food in the company of many American beers, and their brewers

Seven smoke-infused courses were matched with seven American craft beers especially chosen to work with the flavours in the food.  American craft brewers are creating highly innovative, experimental and world-class quality beers, and this was great chance for them to show and tell, with the menu and pairings devised by the Humo chefs, together with Adam Dulye the Brewers Association, Executive Chef.

First up trout with three-month aged caviar smoked over HP18 oak and served with a type of Japanese dashi or stock called Rausu Konbu it was matched with The Bold Mariner Digital Goodbye pilsner and its crisp, lightness worked well with the subtle smoky notes of the fish.

Kombu-Gin-Me sea bream, dry-aged for nine days with fermented datterino  tomato and 25 year old Balsamic vinegar was paired with Coronado Weekend Vibes IPA.   Packed with tropical fruit notes this hazy IPA perfectly partnered the fermented flavours of the dish.

My favourite pairing came next though, a Garden Salad of smoked Agria potatoes, mizuno (miso), edamame beans and East Sussex sansho pepper with Destihl Tourbus Deadhead Hazy IPA.  A lush, tropical, citrus-hop hazy IPA, it was apparently conceived with the input of the Grateful Dead’s road crew.

Yellow tail with a citrus sauce and Castillo coffee and DC Brau Penn Quarter Porter was decidedly different.  The bitter coffee notes in the sauce were enhanced by similar notes in the beer, along with a subtle hint of dark chocolate.  The acidity from the lime based sauce was then counterbalanced by the malty sweetness of the porter

Kagoshima A4 black cattle sirloin came with sudachi dashi and Heavy Riff Velvet Underbrown. This smooth and creamy brown ale was a perfect partner for the fabulous beef.

And still we carried on, with cauliflower cooked under ash with Rokko Miso and Nori paired up with Virginia Beer Co Wee Heavy Waypost. This beer is aged in Single Malt whisky barrels which impart notes of caramel as well as some subtle smoke

And finally, Amalfi Lemon tart, almond base, oak ‘burnt’ meringue with  903 Brewers Polynesian Whip Cream Ale.  Pineapple and vanilla ice cream flavours in  beer were not something I’d enjoy in a pub, but here they worked remarkably well.

Many of the American craft beers featured above are award-winners from highly prestigious international beer competition and it’s easy to see why.  The quality shines through and the bold, hop-forward flavours are testimony to American craft brewers’ collective expertise. The UK is an important trading partner for 3the USA and the second largest for US craft beer exports behind Canada with 7.3% of all global craft beer exports in 2022.