MELISSA Monosoff distinctly remembers what she calls her "aha!" beer moment.
Monosoff, a master sommelier at Savona Restaurant in Gulph Mills, was working at Maia, the sadly short-lived eclectic American restaurant on the Main Line. She was trying to find the right wine pairing for an appetizer of barbecued house-smoked eel served with a foie gras torchon and hazelnuts.
"I tried different Alsatian wines, a Pinot Gris," she said. "Not this, not that - nothing worked. It was the eel that was driving me crazy, with its combination of sweet and smoky. Then the lightbulb went off. It's not wine at all - oh, my God! It's beer. Belgian Chimay Red, which is also a little sweet and smoky, was perfect. From then on, I was hooked."
Monosoff now frequently turns to the complexity of beer when she's looking for the ideal flavor match for everything from bitter summer salad greens to sushi to chicken and vegetables on the grill. "You'd be missing something if you didn't experiment with beer and food pairings," she said. "Beer makes so many foods taste better."
With the third annual Philly Beer Week kicking off tomorrow, a riotous 10 days of 872 brew-related events at more than 140 bars in the city and 'burbs, it's no secret that Philadelphians love their beer.
Thinking about how the many complex flavors in craft beer can work with food takes the whole beer experience to the next level.
"That's something wine drinkers don't always realize," said Erin McLean, director of Tria's Fermentation School, the ongoing education academy concentrating on Tria's toothsome triumvirate: beer, wine and cheese. Originally directed just to Tria staff, the academy also offers fun classes for the general public, including the upcoming Beer for Winos, offered by McLean and Monosoff in July.
"We're so spoiled in Philly," said McLean, who combines an education background with a passion for food and drink. "We have an amazing array of beer available to us from all over the world. Beer offers as complex a tasting experience as wine does, so why not explore it?"
Al Paris has been attending his own version of Beer U. in the past year. Paris, a familiar figure on the local restaurant scene for more than two decades, is executive chef at the newly opened City Tap House, an ambitious craft brew pub in a stunning lodge setting that would be right at home in Vail, Colo. Notable for its 60 beers on tap - each line fed straight from a changing array of kegs - City Tap House's impressive beer program is managed by beer steward Andy Farrell, who, along with company culinary director Brian Cooke, a former general manager at the Fountain at the Four Seasons, worked with Paris to develop the beer-friendly menu.
"We did a lot of tasting," said Paris, whose culinary background includes extensive experience with California wine. The chef found himself surprised at just how similar wine and beer pairing could be.
"I thought I knew what I liked, but the more I tasted, the more my flavor profile changed," he said.
Pairing light beers with lighter foods and darker beers with heavier foods is a pattern familiar to wine drinkers, added Paris. "And you can often correlate wine to beer - for example, taste the astringent, tannic qualities found in really heavy Barola or Cabernet in a more heavily hopped beer."
Philly's love of beer is downright historical, said Paris.
"Pennsylvania once had more beer breweries than England and Ireland combined," he said. Pay a visit to the City Tavern, in Independence National Historical Park, and you can quaff a pint of Thomas Jefferson Ale, one of the restaurant's Ales of the Revolution, brewed to 18th-century specs by locally based Yards Brewing Company.
At MidAtlantic, Daniel Stern's handsome neighborhood taproom on the ground level of the Drexel Science Center, chef de cuisine Steve Lamborn came up with an array of craft-beer matched dinners for Philly Beer Week.
"Our emphasis is on both the cuisine and craft beers of the mid-Atlantic region," he said. Each evening, from Monday through June 11, he's creating a $35, three-course menu to pair with the likes of Cricket Hill East Coast Lager, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA and Erie Railbender Ale.
"Beer can be much more forgiving than wine when you're eating something tricky like red sauce, artichokes or asparagus," he said. A hoppier beer, like India pale ale, is the perfect complement to traditional bar food and anything with spice. Lamborn makes a zippy dish of pork "wings," boneless pieces of pork shoulder fried and tossed in a molasses chili sauce. "The heat of the wings and maltiness of a beer like Troegs' Troegenator are just made for each other."
Paris' beer-loving menu includes an outstanding sausage trio of lamb merguez, bratwurst and sweet fennel, an array of brick-oven pizzas, mussels spiked with spicy chorizo, roasted garlic or shaved fennel and a daily supper that might include a pan-seared grouper (Monday) or suckling pig (June 11).
When pairing, said Paris, think about matching the flavor notes in the beer - the citrus, earthiness or sweet fruit - with like foods. A few more general thoughts: The hoppier and more bitter a beer is, the stronger flavor profile you'll need to stand up to it.
For vino lovers, red wine is akin to ale and white wine to lager. Hop-forward beers can stand in for a more acidic wine.
But, Paris added, "Really, there are no hard and fast rules. The point is to be adventurous. Try matching complementary flavors, and then try contrasting pairings to see how you like them."
"Just like with wine, there are guidelines, but no definitive right or wrong. Whatever you like is the best pairing for you."