The Secrets to SAVOR Pairings


How do you plan for a complex beer and food tasting event like SAVOR?

In 2017, 86 breweries will be participating. Since each of those breweries pours two beers, that clocks us in at a total of 172 beers in one night, each paired to a dish.

As chefs, how do we plan for a pairing event with so many varieties of beer?

Answer: We crowdsource it.

Crowdsourcing Beer and Food Pairings

In mid-February, we gathered more than 50 palates (i.e., people) to taste the beers that participating small and independent U.S. craft brewers will be serving. We asked our tasters to provide detailed notes on the experiences that hit their palates.

Most of the articles and reviews you read about beer speak to how true to style a beer is. Which hops were used? What is the ABV? While all of these notes are important and relay key information about a beer, none of them write a menu, none of them tell a story, none of them create an experience.

So in order to get the information we need to create a menu, we need to coax flavors, moments and experiences from our tasters. It’s an entirely different approach to tasting.

Beer Pairing Is About Experiences on the Palate

For some die-hard beer judges and beer drinkers alike this may take a bit of work convincing your brain to not judge a beer, but rather to taste a beer.

You see, it’s the first thing that pops into your head that we as chefs want to know. I don’t care what you think about it as an IPA, a pale ale or a sour beer. Instead, as a chef, it’s more helpful to know your first impression when you tasted the beer.

It’s a bit like watching the old Ghostbusters flick. Who thought of the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man? Yup, that’s what we want. Unfiltered impressions.

What did that first smell, that first sip do to your palate? Where did your mind take you? What memory came to you? Did it conjure up smells of fresh cut grass, the ground just after the rain, snow melt, perfume trail? The list can go on and on, and most importantly, there is no wrong answer.

Taking what you experience in a beer and transforming those experiences into a dish is how we get new pairings, new dishes, new experiences.

The key for chefs in a crowdsourced tasting (ours netted more than 1,500 individual comments on the beers tasted) is this: believe in the crowd. Take in what everyone says. Look at the keywords of each sentence. Look for patterns. If you see lemon five times, chances are some form of lemon in the dish will work out well and highlight some great notes in the beer.

What to Expect in 2017

Each year we approach SAVOR as a completely new event with new possibilities, which keeps things exciting for us and for return attendees. What worked last year may not work this year. Hops may settle in new areas on the palate, the growing season may be at a different point, and most importantly the 172 beers that are chosen by the brewers will certainly present many new and exciting options.

When we finished the 2017 menu and tasted a few of the more complex pairings, we realized that this year’s menu is a world away from last year’s. Guided by this year’s beer styles and impressions from our team of tasters, the menu ended up resembling more of a compilation of complete dishes slimmed down to one bite. (The 2016 menu could best be summarized as clean, one- to two-flavor combinations that lead the palate to discovering new hop notes, subtle barrel qualities and roasty malt notes.)

Whereas in 2016 we focused on the roast of a duck breast or the sear of a scallop or the sweetness of the strawberry, in 2017 we’re focusing the palate towards, say, the gentle spice that can be used to confit duck, the reaction of lemon with a clean raw fish, or the sweetness of a blackberry when baked into a pie crust.

So this year we still want you to taste the sear on a cut of meat, the beauty of the freshest raw fish, the simple luxury of produce at its peak in season, but we might take you on a little detour first through some bright citrus notes, deep enhancing spices, hidden brines, and complex combinations.

If you plan on being in the D.C. area on June 2 or 3, join us and try some of the 172 beers paired to some 55 different dishes and stations. We would love to have a beer with you and hear what you taste first.

Adam Dulye is executive chef for the Brewers Association and Dulye is a Culinary Institute of America graduate and co-author of the Beer & Food Course. Dulye also oversees culinary side of SAVOR®: An American Craft Beer and Food Experience, the Farm to Table Pavilion at the Great American Beer Festival®, and the World Beer Cup®.