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pairings to hop about.

Byline: Joel Gorthy The Register-Guard

High-quality craft beers, many believe, are more versatile for pairing with cuisine than wine.

After all, wines typically contain just one essential ingredient - grapes, even if a blend of multiple varieties - while craft beers can have more dimension. Beer recipes might comprise any number of different grain malts that impact flavor, residual sweetness, aroma and body; hops of wildly varying taste, smell and bitterness; and sometimes fruit, vegetable and herbal additions. Yeast strains employed in beermaking culture, too, are more diverse and influential on flavor than those typically allowed in winemaking.

The end result can be beers that are light-bodied and scarcely bitter or ones that are big and bold. They might be mostly dry or strikingly syrupy; more bitter (measured in IBUs, or International Bittering Units), more sweet or some bittersweet in-between; quaffably low in alcohol or as potent as wine.

The most strident sommeliers might disagree, but it stands to reason that the world of craft beer would present more options than wine for matching with complementary currents of flavors coursing through food.

So, wouldn't it make sense that the best of beers could be simply outstanding with the right foods?

Well, Eugene's own ColdFire, Elk Horn and Alesong breweries crafted three of the nation's best beers of 2017 - they have coveted medals from October's Great American Beer Festival in Denver to prove it - so here is a glance at that award-winning trio of divergent brews and how they can pair with cuisine.

Elk Horn Brewery's Lemon Pils

Elk Horn Brewery & Cider House placed third among 98 entries in GABF's American-Style Pilsener or International-Style Pilsener category to earn its first-ever GABF medal for its Lemon Pils.

"This beer is straw in color, and full of citrus, lemon and pine hop flavor and aroma," the brewery notes. "Subtle and restrained bitterness let the light pilsner character, and the citrusy hops shine."

Brewer Nate Sampson's recipe includes a base of Weyermann Bohemian Pilsner, Carafoam and Acidulated malts, and a blend of Citra, Idaho-7, Mosaic, Belma and Lemondrop hops.

This crisp, all-seasons beer (5.5 percent alcohol by volume, 46 IBU) is palate-friendly enough to go with a wide variety of foods, but it seems particularly suited as a foil for many of the zesty, smoky, crispy dishes on Elk Horn's barbecue- and Southern-focused brewpub menu.

Asked to suggest some standout pairings for Lemon Pils, co-owner Colleen Sheehan rounded up several represented in one menu offering: the Dixie Picnic Platter. The sampler of three rotating, house-smoked meats comes with sides of pickled onions, smoked house-cured pickles, collard greens and cilantro-lime coleslaw. On this day, the featured meats were housemade chicken mole sausage with cocoa and chili powder, eight-hour smoked chuck eye steak sliced thin and smoked salmon with honey glaze. Sheehan also added an extra side of fried pickles with housemade ranch dressing.

The Lemon Pils works with this multitude of pairings, Sheehan said, because "the hoppiness and the bitterness of the beer helps cleanse the palate between the smoke and spice from our wide variety of barbecue meats, while the citrus and delicate fruit flavors and aroma complement the smoked salmon on the platter. The sides present a welcomed acidic break in-between the more fatty meats."

ColdFire Brewing's St. James IRA

Meanwhile, fellow first-time GABF medalist ColdFire Brewing placed highest among the trio of Eugene winners, earning silver for its St. James IRA (India red ale) among 71 entries in the Double Red Ale category. The brewers describe the beer as "hop forward with aromas and flavors that are citrus, berry and pine; but balanced with a firm malt character that is soft with notes of chocolate and coffee."

Brewmaster and co-founder Stephen Hughes' recipe includes Weyermann Pale Ale, Two-Row, Munich, Chocolate, dark and light Crystal, and other specialty malts, and a house blend of hops used both for initial bittering and for a final aromatic touch through generous dry-hopping.

The medium-bodied, dark-amber ale (6.1 percent ABV, 60 IBU) is balanced enough, aided by a semi-dry finish, to complement and not overpower many types of cuisine.

On a recent evening, Hughes was asked what he would order from Haybaby Food Cart, just outside the brewery/taphouse near downtown Eugene, to go with the St. James IRA. He had a couple of ideas, but the rich, warming one that won out on that cold, rainy night was Lou's Mega Bacon Cheeseburger - a half-pound patty of local pasture-raised beef, with Tillamook Extra Sharp Aged White Cheddar, thick-cut bacon, griddled onions, pickles, lettuce and Dijon/mayo on a Reality Kitchen bun.

Granted, few beverages of any kind will overpower a mouthful like this, or other hearty red-meat dishes, but the St. James IRA had enough heft to stand up to it. It also made for a nice, palate-cleansing interlude between alternating bites of burger and golden-crisp Haybaby fries, tossed with housemade barbecue rub and served with buttermilk ranch.

Alesong Brewing's Touch of Brett: Mosaic

Finally, Alesong Brewing & Blending followed up a gold-medal finish in the 2016 GABF with a bronze in 2017 for a similarly styled "wild" beer in its Touch of Brett series. The brewery's Touch of Brett: Mosaic finished third among 71 entries in the Brett Beer category, which recognizes beers fermented with naturally occurring Brettanomyces yeasts. Most dread the unpredictable effect of "Brett" in barrels, but some creative brewers crave its earthy, funky influence.

"This dry French-style saison (6.8 percent ABV, 17 IBU) was primary- fermented with a blend of Brettanomyces yeasts for a fruity and spicy experience," the brewery notes. "After aging, it was dry-hopped liberally with 'Mosaic' hops to complement the ripe pineapple, mango, grapefruit and rose-like flavors that evolved during the aging time," which took place inside Oregon and California pinot noir barrels.

Alesong cofounder and head brewer Mat Van Wyk crafted the base brew with Weyerman Pilsner, Rahr Pale Ale, BSG White Wheat, Malpass Wheat, Spelt, Weyerman Rye, Flaked Oats and Acidulated malts, and used Magnum, Amarillo, Centennial, Sorachi Ace and Lemondrop hops in addition to the highlighted Mosaic.

"Fermenting a beer with these special strains of wild yeast creates new and interesting flavors and aromas that work magically with the complementary citrus-like flavors in many of the American hops that we add late in fermentation to enhance the hop aromas, such as pineapple, papaya, peaches and limes," Van Wyk said. "The interplay of yeast and hops is what we are having a great time exploring."

Consumers also would have a great time exploring this acidic, fruity beer's interplay with well-paired foods, but the beer is no longer available. Alesong produces ever-changing small batches made available through quarterly releases, and the 180 cases of Touch of Brett: Mosaic sold out not long after the beer's introduction in May.

The brewery, which this summer opened a countryside tasting room near King Estate Winery in the Lorane Valley, does plan to let more oak-aged, dry-hopped, Brett-fermented beers out of its cellar. Touch of Brett is likely to continue as an annual spring release, each new one showcasing a different hop. Other Alesong beers available now have similarities to Touch of Brett, including Terroir Pinot Gris, a Brett farmhouse ale with the addition of wine grapes.

In the meantime, those lucky local craft-beer aficionados who still have a bottle of Touch of Brett: Mosaic in their cellar might make a point of savoring it along with some of the brewers' suggested food pairings. Their favorites include plank-grilled chinook with pineapple salsa, herbed chvre and lemon shortbread cookies. Find GABF-winning brewers The Elk Horn Brewery & Cider House: 686 E. Broadway, 541-505-8356; ColdFire Brewing: 263 Mill St., 541-636-3889; Alesong Brewing & Blending: 80848 Territorial Highway, 541-844-9925;
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Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 29, 2017
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