In John Steinbeck‘s 1945 novel Cannery Row, the loner marine biologist Doc loves his beer—so much that one of his friends jokingly remarks that one of these days he’ll order a beer milk shake. ”It was a simple piece of foolery, but it had bothered Doc ever since,” Steinbeck writes. “He wondered what a beer milkshake would taste like. The idea gagged him but he couldn’t let it alone. It cropped up every time he had a glass of beer. Would it curdle the milk? Would you add sugar? It was like a shrimp ice cream. Once the thing got into your head you couldn’t forget it…. If a man ordered a beer milk shake, he thought, he’d better do it in a town where he wasn’t known. But then, a man with a beard, ordering a beer milk shake in a town where he wasn’t known—they might call the police.”
Doc eventually gets over his neuroses at an out-of-town diner and orders the shake—half a bottle of beer added to some milk, no sugar—under the pretense that it’s doctor’s orders to help treat an infection. The resulting flavor, described as nothing more than the sum of its dairy and stale ale components, hardly sounds appetizing, and Doc’s post-swig twisted facial expressions pretty much say it all. So from there on out, I’m guessing he probably went back to pairing beer with savory foods, like hamburgers, which is what most of us do. But who’s to say you can’t find beers fit for a dessert course?
Greg Engert, the beer director at Churchkey and Birch and Barley restaurants here in DC, chatted with Smithsonian online reporter Megan Gambino a while back about beers to sub in for New Year’s champagne toasts. It only seemed fitting to pick his brain over e-mail about brews to satisfy the sweet tooth and how to incorporate them into the dessert course of a meal.
When did people start brewing beers meant to appeal to the sweeter part of our palate?
Beer, as a fermented grain-based beverage, has always displayed some degree of residual sweetness. In fact, most beers would have displayed very little “sweetness” as we today comprehend that sensation. Until the technological innovations that began in the early 18th century and culminated in the 19th, beer would have for the most part been much lower in alcohol than today’s variants, had a dark hue, almost always shown some sort of roasty or even smoky quality (both on account of primitive malting techniques), and would have also almost exclusively displayed at least a mild acidity, as well as a sort of earthy, somewhat funky quality we would now mostly associate with Old World wine (due to a lack of yeast science, more rustic brewing techniques and equipment, as well as the affection for such flavors).
I think the larger desire for sweetness is a 20th-century invention, and one only made possible by technological advancements, then instilled in a larger culture with the advent of processed food, as well as with Prohibitionist movements that swept the West with a flurry. I like to remind people that with the United States’ nearly 15 years of the Great Experiment, a generation of young men and women grew up without tasting alcohol, and soft drinks swooped in to ensure that soda-pop, and simplified, concocted—i.e., unnatural—sweetness would remain an indelible part of our world.
What qualities make a beer suitable to serve as (or with) a dessert?
Sweeter, grain-based flavors offer beer as a companion to so much of our foods, as they allow for ales and lagers to complement the sweeter notes that abound in all aspects of cuisine. I am not just talking about sugary sweetness, but starchy sweetness, as well as the sweeter notes inherent in the fatty, protein-laden, buttery tastes we discover in so much of the dishes we enjoy. Beer’s matching with food is extremely complex and many interactions are contained within the felicity of food and beer.
So, when most people think dessert, they think of sweetness, and beer certainly has that covered. Malty beers arrive on the palate showing fantastic notes of toasted bread, biscuits, nuttiness, caramel, butterscotch, toffee. These are all flavors we find in desserts. And beers can very emphatically showcase chocolaty and coffee notes in those darker brews with roasty notes. Fruitier flavors abound in some of the maltier styles already mentioned, but are also seen in the yeast-driven brews, which—through fermentation—produce boldly fruity and spicy notes. These are typically stronger Belgian ales, with those that are lighter in color tasting of apple, pear, peach, orange, lemon, banana, apricot and figs, as well as clove, pepper, cinnamon, vanilla and coriander. The darker varieties offer banana, fig, prune, raisin, cherry, plum and vinous flavors. Spices arrive in the guise of clove, pepper, rose, nutmeg and cinnamon. Some of the funky and sour brews, the Flanders red and brown ales, the fruit lambics, are also excellent for not just showing off fruitier flavors, but reminding us that their acidity is often present in fruit itself. So fresh fruit desserts can work nicely with these drinks that are actually more naturally similar to the fruits themselves. And this is to say nothing of the beers that are brewed with many adjuncts to either establish or heighten the flavors of the beer. We have malty beers brewed with hazelnut nectar, roasty stouts with cacao nibs and sweeter Belgian lambics crafted with fruit, or at least fruit juices.
Can you pair beers with more traditional dessert offerings?
Beers can pair well with so many desserts it is mind-boggling. The ability to identify very emphasized flavors in our beers, like chocolate, fruit or nuttiness, makes it so pairing beer and dessert is quite an approachable endeavor, and one that is instantly rewarding. The easiest approach is to look to mirror the flavors of the dessert with flavors found in certain beers; however, one needs to make sure that the impact of flavors from both are even, otherwise a light and airy dessert will be overwhelmed by a rich and boozy brew, even if they share certain major flavor effects. The same is true for a bold and rich dessert when paired with a lighter and more restrained ale or lager.
Think like a pastry chef and approach your pairings as if you are continuing to craft the dessert. To that end, in addition to looking for complementary flavors, matching fruit with fruit and chocolate with chocolate, one can seek to forge new complimentary relationships on the palate. So perhaps bringing a stronger Belgian dark ale to that chocolate cake, rather than the imperial stout; the Belgian will show some caramel and hints of cocoa to mirror those flavors in the cake, while adding some delicious dark fruit and spice flavors to add a complimentary nuance to the dessert. The same would work for bringing a nutty, toffee sweet barleywine the cake: this dusts the slice with shaved hazelnuts and drizzles of caramel.
What would your top recommendations be for dessert beers and what draws you to these particular brews?
Top styles for dessert beers fall into these categories. They should typically be bolder brews, as dessert comes at the end of the meal and the palate may struggle to fully engage milder flavors. Also, desserts tend to be richer, or at least intensely flavored.
Malty, bready, nutty, caramelized brews: English strong ale, barleywine, Scotch ale (aka Wee Heavy), doppelbock, eisbock
Roasty and chocolaty brews: sweet stout, oatmeal stout, porter, Baltic porter, Belgian stout, brown ale, imperial stout
Fruity, spicy, sweeter brews with brighter notes: sweet fruit beer/sweet fruit lambic (brewed with strawberry, raspberry, cherry, peach, apple, etc.), Belgian strong blond ale, tripel, Belgian strong pale ale, Weizenbock (pale), wheatwine
Fruity, spicy, sweeter brews with darker notes: dubbel, Belgian strong dark ale, Weizenbock (dark), quadrupel
Tart, funky, fruity brews: Flanders red/brown ale, traditional fruit lambic; blond, pale and dark wild ales
So perhaps if Doc were a little more beer-savvy before going into the diner, he could have had a better milk shake. He’s not the only one who has been intrigued by the pairing—and some even find it preferable to enjoying beer on its own.