Learn the Secrets of Beer as a Staple in Chef Christian Irabién’s Kitchen

In Latino foodways, fermentation highlights ancient flavors, sensations and memories

Black and white photograph of a the façade of a Mexican beer hall in Texas.
For centuries, South Texas has been home to many Latinos in the United Sates and served as a crossroads for immigrants, vacationers, and contractors in the American South. This beer hall in Robstown, Tex., just West of Corpus Christi, shows one of the iconic cantinas that offer cold cerveza as a respite from the blistering Texas heat. Lee, Russell, photographer. Mexican beer hall. Robstown, Texas. Feb. 1939. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

The microbiology that occurs through the process of fermentation has allowed humans to not only thrive on this planet but enjoy flavors and sensations that make life all the richer for millennia. The following conversation between the National Museum of the American Latino’s Public Program Coordinator, Joshua Segovia and Washington D.C. local chef, Christian Irabién strives to highlight Beer in Latino Foodways as a part of the ongoing celebration for Latino Heritage Month at the Smithsonian Institution. This conversation is supported by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino in Washington D.C.

Joshua Segovia: Thanks for being a part of this conversation as we close out Latino Heritage Month, Christian. Why don't we start with a little bit of background about yourself?

Christian Irabién: Sure, and thank you for having me! So, I am originally from Mexico. I was born and raised in Chihuahua. We eventually made it to El Paso, TX. I graduated high school and moved to Austin. I was there for about two years before I went to DC. My mom came up here for a job. Then I came to visit in 2011; and I'm still here.

Joshua Segovia: That’s fantastic. Glad we have Texas as a connection and of course as you know, our mutual contact, my cousin and a friend of yours, Elias Serda who made his way to Austin too by way of the Rio Grande Valley, but did you meet him in Austin or in DC?

Christian Irabién: No, I met him up here. I met him cooking in a kitchen for chef José Andrés at a Mexican restaurant called Oyamel.

And I think we kind of bonded because of the whole Texas thing. There are people here from all over. But at least in my experience when I meet someone from Texas who is familiar with all the things that come with “being from Texas,” I feel like I make friends very quickly with them. And obviously we shared our profession, which was cooking. We shared the same kitchen, and we had a lot of overlapping friends.

Joshua Segovia: Ok so it was at Oyamel. The National Museum of the American Latino loves Oyamel and especially José Andrés! So then how long have you been a chef?

Christian Irabién: Well, I would say kind of most of my life but professionally as I know it now- around 2007. I started kind of dabbling on weekend jobs, picking up shifts here and there, and it wasn't until 2009 that I left my nine to five office job, and went full time into this profession. But growing up, my family always had restaurants. I mean nothing like the big city restaurants we know now but like little places in strip malls, or, you know, sandwich shop in-between-hardware-shop-and-a-locksmith type places. Just places where my family made food, and that was sort of the thing we did. But because of that, all my family was very adamant that I did not follow in that path. But it did not work, because here I am.

Joshua Segovia: Oh, really! That's how it goes. Right?

You mentioned always being exposed to it throughout your childhood so was there ever a realization that, like, you wanted to cook for people at an earlier age? Or did that come later?

Christian Irabién: No, I mean, I think, growing up, even though I was always around my family's restaurants just like peeling shrimp and bussing tables, or whatever, I don't think it ever clicked in my head that this was a job. I think the narrative my family sold me on was that restaurants were just a place where people who had no other options would work.

I have this conversation often with my partner about these light-bulb or “aha!” moments as you start growing and developing as a human being but I felt like I was…I don't know, like this farm animal that lived on my family's farm, or my community's farm, and I just did what all the other farm animals were doing. I don't know if you've ever seen like cows in the corral, and they're always huddled together, and if you open the corral they don't move. They just stay there, even though there's a door to leave, because that's just where they are.

So I think for a long time I was just like, “Oh, okay, this is just the way it is,” and you start falling into cycles. I started working in offices around age 22, all the way till I was like 26. I kept pushing myself because I was like “I have to do this.” My family wanted me to be in business. But I just I couldn't do it. I would get up from my desk or go walk around. I was always finding stuff to do. And when I took my first kitchen job everything sort of clicked. It was like my life now had purpose, because you walk into a kitchen, and there's just so many things happening at once. You're constantly going and going and going and going. You start a project and then someone calls you away, and then something burns, or something needs to get washed, and then a table needs something. So you’re just always on the go, and for me I think it was like the first time I felt myself in an environment that pushed me forward. I was like, “This is it. This is what I've been missing that I couldn't get in all the other jobs I’d tried before.”

Joshua Segovia: You’re right! You get to embody what you're doing and not just the physical aspects but the mental focus it takes, which can be a very fulfilling experience. So, as a chef have you had the opportunity to utilize beer or alcohol in a menu?

Christian Irabién: Yeah, for sure! You know, beer is such a staple. We always joke in the kitchen that beer is liquid bread. But there's all kinds of alcoholic beverages we use, beer, wine, and spirits and we incorporate a lot of those liquids into our cooking, whether it's marinating or sauteing or flambe-ing some shrimp with tequila or mezcal. We always de-glaze our pans with white wine, etc. As I’ve grown in professional cooking it’s been important to discern which beers to carry on our menus. From learning about the producers or where it’s coming from, how those producers are affecting the communities they are in, like where they're pulling their water from, to the bigger impact that they're having, not just on the environment, but also in the people that live there. So we try to be very intentional on who we partner with and who we collaborate with and what kind of beer we bring in.

Joshua Segovia: That’s a great point and I'm glad you mentioned beverages other than beer, because even though today we're talking about beer specifically, people have been fermenting foods throughout the Americas for millennia using various fermentation techniques and plants native to the region. Beverages like pulque made from the maguey or agave plant often consumed by the Aztecs and people of central Mexico; Or Chi, a fermented agave sap enjoyed by the Mayans; and Balche’ a drink made from the bark of the balche’ tree (Lonchocarpus longistylus,) mixed with wild bee’s honey and water to create a beverage enjoyed by people around the Yucatan Peninsula to this day. And of course, all over the Internet for the past year or two it seems like everybody's talking about tepache.

Christian Irabién: Yes, you know they’re even starting to can it. Now you can get it at most hipster grocery stores.

Joshua Segovia: That's right, and I'm glad these things are being brought to a broader audience but as you said, we must keep in mind the cultures from which these beverages originate as well as the communities they impact. We must give credence to the people of the land responsible for the things we enjoy, and not take that for granted. I’m interested, though, how do you feel about beer specifically?

Christian Irabién: Um, we have a good relationship. Haha! I think the older I get the less beer I drink. I often feel very full after drinking a beer versus having a glass of wine or a cocktail. I tend to be more of a pilsner and lager drinker, or maybe like an amber. But once we start getting into like IPA territory… A younger version of me was very much about that life, but not so much anymore.

But in the kitchen, we do a lot of experimentation. As I was saying, we joke that it's liquid bread, but we use beer as a starter when we are making breads. Especially when making crackers for different dips. It's such an interesting way to acquire flavors! The things that people are doing with beer are no longer just, you know barley, yeast, and water, and now they're putting in fruits and meats and vegetables where ten, fifteen years ago it was unheard of. You had your lager, you had your amber, your ale, and that was the end of the spectrum.

Joshua Segovia I remember when all my tios started to branch out from their regular beer of choice. They were overwhelmed by IPAs or the idea of a microbrewery. You mentioned using beer as a starter for bread. How do you mean? Like a starter for fermentation?

Christian Irabién: So yeah, taking a regular cup of flour and incorporating the beer into it, and letting that beer itself, like the sugars and the alcohol and the yeast; the already ongoing fermentation starts affecting that flour. It's a quick way to make bread if you don't have yeast available. All the components are there already. So pouring it in to make your dough, and then giving it some time to do what it needs to do, you have some bread.

Joshua Segovia: What do you think is the most versatile beer in the kitchen?

Christian Irabién: Hmm, when I’m doing stuff like marinating steak, chicken, or any seafood that we're going to throw in a grill, I personally tend to go for more - my grandmother, growing up, always drank Bohemia. It's like a dark lager. That's what I gravitate to. It has a bolder flavor. I know a lot of friends that use Guinness a lot just because of the bold flavors that no matter how long you cook it a lot of that complexity stays in.

On the other hand I also see a lot of beers that are sixty percent alcohol content. And it's almost kind of like “We're just trying to make beer to see how quickly we can get drunk,” and they may succeed in that, but when you taste them, the flavors aren't necessarily there.

I stay away from wheat beers. I can't do anything that’s overly hoppy. They tend to leave a lot of bitterness behind. So, unless that's something that you're going for, I would keep around a beer that’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum- not so dark it will overpower, and not so light that it'll fade away.

Joshua Segovia: When you think of beer in Latino foods, what's one of the first dishes that comes to mind?

Christian Irabién: My uncle's Carne Asada. I grew up with that, just throwing beer on ribs and rib eyes and stuff; literally, not even marinating. Just like pouring beer on top of the grill. That was the move. That's what they did, and I grew up seeing that but as I started getting into food and working with other chefs, I started understanding the “whys,” right? Understanding that pouring it willy-nilly is not going to do as much as putting that steak in a Ziploc bag, and letting it sit in the beer for an hour or two. Letting it really absorb those flavors. But it was something that I always saw.

At my grandparent’s restaurant in El Paso, which was a seafood restaurant, we would use beer in batters for frying. Different beers affect the batter; beer with more fermentation equals more effervescence, which will mean more airiness and a lighter, fluffier, batter. Some people, if they're not using good beer or running low, will even bump it with club soda because they're looking for those bubbles to really add that light airiness to the batter.

Different beers really do bring different flavors, either because of the fermentation process or how they were bottled and can be fun to cook with.

Joshua Segovia: What sort of advice might you have for someone who is trying to experiment with beer in their cooking? Do you have any helpful tips?

Christian Irabién: I would say the first step is drink it! Make sure you like it. If you're good with it then I think a good starter recipe, if you’re wanting to go beyond just pouring it on top, or throwing a steak into a bag, is making beans. My grandfather always made them, and I know there's like a million iterations but he would take his onion, garlic carrots and celery, almost like a French mirepoix, and he would sauté that until everything was fragrant. Then he would pour beer over the veg and let it reduce until all the alcohol was gone. You were left with this concentration of the beer itself. Then he would go in with his bay leaf, or whatever herbs he was using, and let those steep in the liquid, so the whole liquid would get those flavors. Then he would add his beans. He would then add his stock or water, and then just let them cook. The goal is to really get rid of the alcohol and a lot of the excess liquid to really get that very concentrated flavor that's left behind. Once you eat the beans, you start picking up on all those notes from that dark beer.

I feel like recipes are more of a suggestion. They're a starting point but you should always allow yourself the freedom to taste it and discern for yourself. And if it's too salty, add some water to dilute it, or maybe it needs more spice.

What I cook is what I like to eat. Could I sit down and make foie gras? Sure. But I don't crave that. I want stuff that makes me feel good, what makes me feel happy. I would need beans, rice, a fried egg, and like a little salsa, and I’m out. That's all I need, and I think most people do, too. Versus these very chef-driven concept menus where someone is combining sea urchin and cotton candy.

Joshua Segovia: That’s funny you say that because there was a time back home where you started seeing these restaurants pop up, and they'd be the talk of the town because people would be like “Oh, well, they make tacos, but like, they put Pop-Rocks in the taco.” but everybody knew what you're talking about. “Oh, the Pop Rock Taco: Yeah. Of course.”

Christian Irabién: Oh, man, maybe that's what I need to do. Haha!

Joshua Segovia: Haha! Hey, you never know!

Christian Irabién: But I think I cook Mexican food out of my own search for a connection to Mexico. I could have cooked any other food, but I think I’m trying to connect with a place that is so huge in my identity, yet so far away because we came to the states when I was eleven, and food is a way for me to relate.

Joshua Segovia: Christian, it's been great talking with you and I’ve learned some things that I’m excited to try in my kitchen at home.

Christian Irabién: Awesome! Yes, and thank you for having me.


Last Call : ¡Salud! to American Latinos in Beer is hosted by the American Brewing History Initiative at the National Museum of American History in collaboration with the National Museum of the American Latino to celebrate the past, present, and future of American Latinos in the brewing industry. 

The American Brewing History Initiative is made possible through generous support from the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade association dedicated to small and independent American brewers. 

Chef Christian Irabién was born and raised in Mexico and is a long-time resident of the DC area. His cooking is inspired by his family’s traditions from Chihuahua, Distrito Federal (CDMX) and the coastal states of Veracruz, Yucatán and Guerrero. 

Chef Christian Irabién Courtesy of Christian Irabién
Chef Christian served most recently as Founder and Executive Chef at ¡Muchas Gracias!, in Washington DC as well as Hospitality Humans, a multi-disciplinary boutique consulting firm aiding F&B spaces become more diverse, inclusive and equitable through professional development and creating meaningful connection between leadership and staff. Chef Christian’s culinary journey is a deeply personal one and manifests beyond the plate. He strives to create and cultivate spaces which develop hospitality skills in the low-income, Latin American immigrant community.