Out come the diver scallops; they were in the water just seven hours before. But now they rest atop purple potato chips, dressed in white soy and avocado puree. This littler teaser of a dish is accompanied by Exponent, a cuddly IPA brewed with Bru-1 hops. It is pineapple in a glass, soft and relaxed. The pairing is a promising prelude to what’s to come at Tropical Getaway, Bissell Brothers’ themed in-house beer dinner, held in early March.

Five courses follow this lovely amuse-bouche. And, of course, there is beer as well. The mango and citrusy notes of Lux complement a mango and yellow pepper gazpacho with Maine uni and a quail egg yolk. Tuna crudo with finger lime, Macadamia nuts and Fresno chili is amplified by Assume Positive Intent – the Portland brewery’s “most brazenly tropical pale ale,” as brewer Noah Bissell tells us – dripping with lime and coconut flavors. Prawn skewers, wrapped in Thai basil and dipped in tamarind aioli and shrimp head sauce are met by the swagger of the double IPA Swish, its green creaminess pushing against the grilled smokiness of the food. And for the main course, the cream ale Kickflip plays a supporting role to suckling pig with caramelized pineapple mustarda and onion jam, the carbonation and faint sweetness of the beer washing down each bite of the rich meat.

This type of intricate meal starts coming together a few weeks before the event, according to owner Peter Bissell. Managers from the kitchen, brewing production, operations and the taproom assess the brewing schedule and discuss possible themes that might work with the beers in production. Once a theme is aligned with the beers, “chefs begin honing in on specific dishes,” according to Bissell, pairing them with beers, then returning to the dishes to tweak and further align them with what the beer brings to the table.

Beers pair with the foods, but then each coupling is also arranged deliberately, from one to the next. “Beer-wise, we build in flavor intensity before dealing out a palate-cleansing offering for the food’s main course,” Bissell said. And then comes dessert, which “is always a chance to pair a decadent or more esoteric beer offering.”

If you’re thinking of experimenting with your own beer-centered meals, this is a good guiding principle. Mike Elvin, social media coordinator at Allagash Brewing and a Certified Cicerone (a beer sommelier), recommends that one “start small, with lower-intensity flavors, and build to more impactful flavors as you progress through the meal.” Intensely flavorful beers will undermine your ability to really enjoy any subtler flavors later in the meal. Another crucial consideration, Elvin said, is for the beer and the food to match in flavor intensity: “you want to make sure bold flavors in the food are countered with bold flavors in the beer.” An imperial stout will crush the delicacy of a salad, but meet its match in a decadent chocolate cake.

So, start small and escalate, matching intensities along the way. But then we come to each individual pairing itself, and here the pairing strategist has real options. “Beer is so versatile,” said Em Sauter, the artist behind the wonderful website Pints and Panels and an Advanced Cicerone. “It really can taste like anything from fruit to chocolate to bread and beyond.”

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An illustration of beer styles paired with various types of pie from the website Pints and Panels. Illustration by Em Sauter of Pints and Panels

Sauter loves spicy chorizo tacos teamed up with a dark lager, like a Munich Dunkel. The malty sweetness “helps even out that heat” and harmonizes with the saltiness of the tacos. But sometimes, a New England IPA might fit the bill; its tropical fruit flavors amount to “adding pineapple salsa” to the tacos, “but in drink form.”

At other times, one might choose a beer that functions more like a janitor – or what Sauter calls a “mouth napkin” – resetting the palate before moving on to the next bite. She likes a Belgian Tripel to “scrub” the flavors of fatty meat. Allagash’s Elvin recommends highly carbonated or sour beers, which are “excellent at scrubbing fat from your palate and cleansing between bites,” when eating rich foods like cheese or paté.

Two of Elvin’s favorite pairings of food and local beer align with this “cutting” sensibility. Sasanoa Brewing’s Big Island Saison – “a delicate, delicious French farmhouse ale” – is a “dream” when paired with tom kha, the traditional Thai soup. The beer’s carbonation “slices through the richness of the coconut, while the ginger and lime basil in the beer interact with the galangal and lime in the dish, making all of the ingredients absolutely pop.” If that’s a dream, Elvin’s “heaven” is Marshall Wharf’s Pemaquid Oyster Stout paired with Damariscotta oysters, as “the astringency of the roasted malts in the beer cuts right through the richness of the oysters.”

Although Sauter isn’t a Mainer, she has some beloved local pairings as well. As for those aforementioned tacos? Bissell Brothers’ Substance does the trick. She loves Oxbow’s Luppolo, outdoors, with a veggie burger. And Allagash White, which Sauter says “could be the most perfect beer that ever was created,” is a treat with “mixed greens or delicate dishes like simple grilled fish.”

But one should also leave space for whimsy and sentiment when developing a match. Elvin recommends “attempting to evoke a sense memory from flavor combinations.” For him, a pairing of Allagash Coolship Red, a spontaneously fermented raspberry beer, with a peanut butter cookie “will snap you right back into being a kid and tearing into a PB&J sandwich.” Sauter enjoys a juicy IPA with chocolate chip cookies, which reminds her of the chocolate oranges popular during the holidays.

Ice cream with toasted coconut and passion fruit creameaux paired with Bissell Brothers’ Day Use for dessert. Photo courtesy of Bissell Brothers

One “sense memory” that most Mainers would invite in early March is a warm, sunny beach as a “tropical getaway.” Bissell Brothers obliged. The dinner finished with an Ice Cream Vacherin hopped with Sabro – the “piña colada of hops,” as the chef tells us – accented with toasted coconut and passion fruit creameux. It was paired with Day Use, a saison blend of beers aged on wood, dry hopped with Callista, and brewed at Bissell’s Milo facility. Tart, dry, and lemony, with a bit of background funk, its acidity cleanses the palate as the dessert soars. As Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone,” of Top Gun fame, pulsed throughout the tasting room, I mused on the importance of a good wingman.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.


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