One Nation Under Beer

Too often when I drink beer I make a crucial, always regrettable mistake: I forget to eat. I'll stuff my stomach with salty, bar-top pretzels chips, then happily slurp a second or, more accurately, a fifth pint. Soon the hours grow big, then small again, and I'm left grasping for another greasy slice of pizza.

This diet would be fine, even expected, if I were 19 and bonging Natural Ice. But I've crested my 30s, and I favor flavorful craft beer such as bitter India pale ales, sludgy stouts, and banana-hinted hefeweizens. These are suds that demand more than cheese-topped cardboard. Craft beer deserves a place at the dinner table, a lesson underscored by my recent trip to Washington D.C., to attend SAVOR.

Presented by advocacy group the Brewers Association in the soaring, historic National Building Museum, the two-day SAVOR celebrated the union of American craft beer and quality food. During the event, 72 coast-to-coast brewers descended upon the nation's capital to dole out two beers apiece, each flavor-matched to a unique dish. In case you're keeping count, that's 144 different pairings. During my Saturday-night session, I had three and a half hours to try them all: an average of one pairing every 90 seconds or so.

I arrived hungry, on time, and immediately beelined to Nebraska Brewing. One of my favorite Midwestern breweries, Nebraska turns out terrific barrel-aged brews and has a deft hand with hopping. My first sample was Hop God IPA married to crispy tuna rolls. The beer's lively flavors of tropical fruit mated nicely with the crispy tuna rolls, which were finished with apricot ponzu. Next, I made hay to Kansas City, Missouri's Boulevard Brewing. Its peppery, citrusy Belgian saison received a cross-cultural match with a Cubano; the salty pork and acidic pickles more than stand up to the big yeasty beer.

After that, I turned to the tart side with Deschutes' Dissident. The Oregon-brewed sour ale took my tongue for a puckering ride, which was tempered by a biscuit filled with fatty, mouth-coating pork belly. I then detoured into dessert, sipping Captain Lawrence's warming, apple brandy barrel–aged Golden Delicious alongside bites of caramel apple pie. It was like adulthood crashing headlong into childhood. I burped and soldiered on with Brooklyn Brewery's buttery and lemony Sorachi Ace saison. It sidled up to peppery smoked salmon, while Founders' Kentucky Breakfast Stout tangoed with double-chocolate bread pudding. I moaned a bit after that bite.

Following 10 or 15 pairings, I glanced at my watch. An hour had dissolved. It was physically impossible to sip and sup 144 distinct pairings in the allotted time frame. I paused. Why rush? This wasn't a trip to a boozy Old Country Buffet. SAVOR was about reflecting on flavors, to discover how craft beer excels — and often exceeds wine — when it comes to pairing with food.

So I slowly sipped Short's Spruce Pilsner coupled with a chilled pork rillette, then chomped on crawfish fritters balanced by Lagunitas IPA. I ate till I was full, then I ate some more. Pizza would have no place in my stomach tonight.

Joshua M. Bernstein is the author of the forthcoming Brewed Awakening, a reported take on the world's craft-beer revolution.