As someone who was ahead of the curve when it came to raising the profile of craft beer in British Columbia, Howe Sound Brewing co-owner Leslie Fenn has seen a change in the way lagers and ales are regarded on the culinary front.
Long gone are the days when the only thing a cold one was paired with was a hot dog or hamburger and a baseball game. And when it comes to getting creative with alcohol in the kitchen, we’ve embraced the idea that wine—and cognac, if we’re being extra fancy—aren’t the only tools at our disposal for creating complex flavour profiles.
Fenn entered the beer business as co-owner of Squamish’s Howe Sound Brewing in 1996—a good decade and a half before the B.C. craft-beer scene exploded.
“When we started, there were about seven breweries,” she says, on the line from the States, where she’s on business. “Now I think there’s something like 180.”
Today, she’s also a co-owner at East Van’s R&B Brewing, with her time on the frontlines giving her a good vantage point for watching the way attitudes towards craft beer have evolved among those who love to cook and eat. Howe Sound Brewing’s menu, for example, features items like Rail Ale BBQ Smoked Chicken Wings and Ale and Cheddar Soup.
“Think about how mussels and beer seems to be a standard on menus these days,” says Fenn. “You might have seen it in Europe, in England, Ireland, Belgium, or France 20 years ago, but you wouldn’t have seen that here. Now it’s standard fare in North America.”
While folks on this side of the Atlantic took a while to pick up on it, beer has actually been used as a valuable cooking ingredient for centuries. Things date right back to the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians, whose physicians believed that using beer in recipes had health benefits.
In stews and traditional chilis, which tend to call for tougher cuts of meat, science comes into play. The process of braising helps break down collagen—the connective tissue that holds muscle fibres in meat together. And while you can use wine or stocks and broths for tenderizing during the braising process, you can also use beer.
“Wines can be more acidic, although probably the vintners wouldn’t agree with that,” Fenn says with a laugh. “Beers are very different. There have been unique beers created for centuries, using so many different yeasts and malts and hops. So when those are added to a recipe, they really add a flavour profile. They can be used for adding a bitterness, or a dark richness. And they can add a lightness, or a hoppiness.”
The next time you decide to play amateur Bobby Flay by attempting the celebrity chef’s Red Beef Chili, think about Howe Sound’s Pothole Filler Imperial Stout and what it might add with its pronounced notes of chocolate and coffee.
“Porters are also fantastic for adding a toasty aroma to meats in the cooking process because they are dark and strong,” Fenn says.
As sure as a traditional American lager has little in common with hop-heavy India pale ale, Irish stout, or Belgian lambic, different dishes will call for different beers.
“One year we made chocolate ganache and beautiful chocolate truffles to give out,” Fenn says. “And they were a hit—people are still asking us to make them. Chocolate and stouts definitely go together.”
With lighter dishes, you obviously go lighter with the beer. So, when breaking out the deep fryer and unleashing your inner Iron Chef on Cat Cora’s Spicy Onion Rings, opt for something like a Red Truck Round Trip Amber Ale.
There’s also nothing to stop you from getting creative. When doing a beer-can chicken on the barbecue, work a couple of lemon slices under the skin with the oregano sprigs and then stuff the cavity with a Parallel 49 Grapefruit Tricyle Radler.
As we’ve become more sophisticated as beer consumers, we’ve also started to pay attention to what pairs well with our food after it leaves the kitchen. Those marriages have long been important to Fenn and her team.
“We’ve done pairing with food for about 20 years,” she says. “Think stout and chocolate cake. Our Whitecap Wheat Ale has orange and cardamom in it, so it’s a natural pairing with a light fish dish. It adds to the profile of food whether it’s paired with it or added to it. It’s amazing what you can do.”
A pint can also help when you’re starting to regret ordering that extra slab of sliced beef brisket with the flavour-bomb fat cap.
“One of the things that beer does is sort of cut the fat as well,” Fenn says. “When you have something quite greasy, and have a standard pale ale or a British brown, it really cuts the fat.”
One of the greatest things about beer is its versatility. Whether you’re cooking with it or drinking it, Fenn notes there’s a style to go with anything, including hot dogs, hamburgers, and baseball.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of different versions of beers and ales,” Fenn says. “In many cultures beer is the standard drink instead of wine. If you’re in a British bar you’ll often have a sausage and pint, or a pickled egg and a pint—if you like pickled eggs. I can’t imagine having those things with a wine.”
Recipe for Howe Sound Brewing’s infused mussels
2 lbs fresh mussels
3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup finely diced onions
2 tbsp minced garlic
3 tbsp finely chopped parsley
3 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped
371 mL, or 1 can, of HSB Garibaldi pale ale
1/2 cup cream
Heat a skillet and add the butter, onions. and garlic. Cook until soft. Add tomatoes, and bring to a simmer. Add 371 mL of Howe Sound Brewing Garibaldi Honey Pale Ale and bring back to a simmer. Add the mussels, cover and cook until the shells just open. Remove the mussels from the pan and set aside to keep warm. Reduce the remaining sauce slightly and add the cream. Remove from the heat, and stir in parsley. Pour the sauce over the mussels. Serve immediately with a pint of HSB Garibaldi and warm baguette or beer bread.