My love of craft beer began as a form of rejection. The beer I drank had to be the antithesis of light, macro-brewed lagers. It was a view subconsciously inflicted on me by one of my older brothers, the guy who first taught me how to appreciate beer. I followed the lead of a man who had us blow out our taste buds with heavy, smoky porters. A man who, three Boston Marathons and a conversion to veganism later, revealed himself to be a masochist. Well, at least I've tried to mellow with age.
But a strain of such mutually assured taste-bud destruction still exists in the craft brew world—primarily with India Pale Ales. IPAs showcase hops, the flower that adds bitterness, spice and herbaceousness to beer. Some craft brewers even attempt to one-up each other by shoving as much powerful hop flavor into their IPAs. The result can turn a nice cold one with friends into a test of endurance.
"Right now a lot of IPAs are so hop forward that your palate can only enjoy one because of the high bitterness," says Anchor brewmaster Mark Carpenter. To play contrarian, Carpenter and his team crafted the San Francisco-based brewery's new Anchor IPA. It isn't overly spicy or pungent, and its Munich and Caramel malts add a sweetness to balance the citrusy hops Carpenter et al employed. Translation: It's a fantastic beer that plays well with food.
What kind of food? For starters, a new delicacy from across the Bay.
At the Oakland-based restaurant Homeroom, co-owners Allison Arevalo and Erin Wade have devoted themselves to mac and cheese. Their menu—and accompanying Mac + Cheese Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2013)—features recipes ranging from the Classic with extra sharp cheddar to a Sriracha mac with Havarti and ginger butter.
Not that all of their mac-and-cheese creations came easily. "It was hard to pair Asian flavors like pork and sweet and sour with cheese," Arevalo explains. Eventually, however, they discovered that the famous red rooster gave them the spice and tanginess they were looking for. Especially when combined with a mild, buttery cheese, like Gouda or Havarti, which provides the mellow base that allows the Sriracha to stand out.
After finalizing their Asian mac recipe, Wade and Arevalo—as they do for every dish—wanted to find a beer to pair with it. "Our general philosophy is we like to match strength for strength," Wade says. "A spicy dish will work well with a beer that has some bitterness." So for the Sriracha Mac they usually grab a pale ale, like Firestone Walker's Pale 31, because it has some hoppyness without being aggressive. However, Homeroom currently has the Anchor IPA on tap, and in it, they found an IPA mild enough to team up with this mac.
They were right. The two never felt like they were fighting each other when I tried Arevalo and Wade's recipe along with the Anchor at home. The cool crispness of the IPA tempers the Sriracha's heat, while the citrus notes of the hops cut the mac's richness. And they do match strength for strength. The sensation of consuming them is much the same. An initial mildness gives way to some spice, but not so much that you're reaching for water to put out the fire. Only the masochists won't be satisfied.
1/2 pound dried elbow pasta
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups Mac Sauce (Recipe Below)
2 cups grated Havarti or Gouda cheese
2 tablespoons Sriracha sauce, plus more for drizzling
1 cup chopped green onions (green and light green parts only)
1/2 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until a little less than al dente. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain the pasta again.
- Mash together the ginger and butter in a small bowl until fully combined.
- Add the sauce, cheese and ginger butter to a large, heavy-bottomed pot and cook over medium heat. Stir until the cheese is barely melted, about 3 minutes. Add the Sriracha and the cooked pasta, and continue cooking while stirring continuously until the dish is nice and hot, another 5 minutes. Add the green onions and stir to fully combine.
- Pour the mac into a 14-inch casserole pan and sprinkle with panko. Bake until hot and bubbly and the topping is golden, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and drizzle with more Sriracha.
- Spoon into bowls and serve.
Mac Sauce (a.k.a. Béchamel 101)
3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt or 1 teaspoon table salt
- Heat the milk in a pot over medium heat until it just starts to bubble, but is NOT boiling, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat.
- Heat the butter over medium heat in a separate, heavy-bottomed pot. When the butter has just melted, add the flour and whisk constantly until the mixture turns light brown, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.
- Slowly pour the warm milk, about 1 cup at a time, into the butter-flour mixture, whisking constantly. It will get very thick when you first add the milk, and thinner as you slowly pour in the entire 3 cups. This is normal.
- Once all the milk has been added, set the pot back over medium-high heat, and continue to whisk constantly. In the next 2 to 3 minutes the sauce should come together and become silky and thick. Use the spoon test to make sure it's ready. To do this, dip a metal spoon into the sauce—if the sauce coats the spoon and doesn't slide off like milk, you'll know it's ready. You should be able to run your finger along the spoon and have the impression remain. Add the salt.
- The Mac Sauce is ready to use immediately and does not need to cool. Store it in the fridge for a day or two if you want to make it ahead of time—it will get a lot thicker when put in the fridge, so it may need a little milk to thin it out a bit when it comes time to melt in the cheese. Try melting the cheese into the sauce first, and if it is too thick then add milk as needed.
Recipes reprinted with permission from The Mac + Cheese Cookbook: 50 Simple Recipes from Homeroom, America's Favorite Mac and Cheese Restaurant by Allison Arevalo and Erin Wade (Ten Speed Press, © 2013).
Beer Pairing is a bi-weekly guide to the best of food and brews. Jeremy Repanich is an Associate Editor at Playboy. His writing has appeared in Men's Journal, Popular Mechanics, Sports Illustrated and SI Kids, as well as on Wired.com, Vice.com, Deadspin and Outside Online. Follow him on Twitter @racefortheprize.
Photo illustration by Jeremy Repanich, bottle picture via Anchor Brewing Company