Raise a pint to cooking with beer

Pale ale such as the one made by Sierra Nevada lends a grapefruit tang to these pineapple brown sugar cupcakes.
Pale ale such as the one made by Sierra Nevada lends a grapefruit tang to these pineapple brown sugar cupcakes. Storey Publishing

As the Sacramento beer scene continues to blossom, the typical consumer has become far better educated and much more discerning.

But if you really want to expand your beer repertoire, start cooking with it. Then find beers to drink with what you cook.

You’ve probably had beer-battered fish and chips. And beer-braised pulled pork is a nice introduction to this versatile cooking component.

To understand the value of beer in cooking, we went deeper – and a touch more esoteric – by tackling an entree called black cod brûlée in which the fish was marinated for 24 hours, braised for an hour and then hit it with a blowtorch for a few seconds.

For this recipe, we used a New Belgium amber ale, which was simmered for an hour to reduce the liquid and intensify the flavor. Then we added minced garlic, pomegranate juice, soy sauce and cranberry sauce to the reduction, which becomes the marinade. The results were incredible, with a bright aroma and complex flavor profile of tangy, salty and a sweet.

In the interests of testing the limits of how much can be done with beer, we even baked pineapple brown sugar cupcakes made with pale ale (and are only now coming out of that wonderful sugar-induced euphoria to tell you about it). We used the seminal pale ale by Sierra Nevada, which has that signature grapefruit flavor note from the Cascade hops. In the cupcakes, the beer brings out additional fruit flavors to layer with the pineapple.

These recipes and more can be found in an exciting and wide-ranging book called “The American Craft Beer Cookbook” ($19.95, Storey Publishing, 343 pages) by John Holl, a veteran travel and beer writer as well as editor of the magazine All About Beer. The eclectic collection of recipes comes from some of the countries top breweries, brewpubs and diners.

Many beer lovers already know how well this beverage works with food.

In his widely admired 2003 book “The Brewmaster’s Table,” Garrett Oliver made a strong argument that beer was eminently more versatile than wine when it comes to pairing with food. “Beer has bitterness to slice through fat, carbonation to refresh the palate, caramelized flavors to match those in your food, and sweetness to quench the fire of chiles,” he writes.

Sean Z. Paxton, an accomplished chef who specializes in cooking with beer, has spread the message through his dinners, which have ranged in size from a handful of people to the 2,000 attendees of the World Beer Cup in 2010. His website,, has been an important resource for those learning about cooking with beer. The site has scores of recipes, including a popular beer brine that promises to elevate the flavor and texture of any pork, chicken or salmon dish.

“It’s fun to be the beer chef in wine country,” said Paxton, who lives in Sonoma. “I’ve done plenty of fine dining, and the one problem I’ve had with dinners where wine is served is you get palate fatigue. After eight courses your palate is like, ‘Ugh! I need something else.’ That’s where I think the carbonation works beautifully in beer. It’s also more complicated. When you think about layering all those flavors in a dish, that Maillard reaction and the browning of sugars and the proteins can do some really neat things.”

But because beer can be so complex and comes in such a wide range of styles, it can also lead you down the wrong path. Paxton says that you don’t simply use any old beer in a recipe. The style must be specific, and even within that style you will find scores of variation and nuance.

“If you use a stout in one recipe it will be great, but in another, it could be disastrous,” he said.

India pale ales? That’s the most popular style in craft beer. But Paxton says it’s probably a good idea to steer clear of cooking with it. He notes that IPAs use basically six styles of hops that showcase such flavors as dank/herbal, citrusy or pine/resin/rosemary.

“But if you reduce it down, the oils (from the hops) don’t reduce so you’re going to get this astringent, bitter element that you’re never going to be able to balance out,” he said.

In “The American Craft Beer Cookbook,” Holl insists that “beer pairs better than wine with food. Beer is so varied, so complex and offers such a cornucopia of flavors that it finds ways to complement, contrast with, and elevate all cuisine – from the lowly chip and dip to the most perfectly aged steak.”

His book has an incredible range of recipes, featuring scores of dishes in which beer is one of the ingredients. But there are also plenty of recipes that are not cooked with beer. They’re in the book because they pair so well with beer. For each recipe, there are suggested beer pairings. Yes, even the pancakes can be paired with beer (a coffee stout or porter is recommended).

These are suggestions, of course. As you expand your understanding of beer and food, it is important that you try to find the pairings that work – and don’t work – for your palate. Don’t let peer pressure sway you. That has been a significant failing in wine, according to Tim Hanni in his illuminating book: “Why You Like the Wines You Like.” Hanni makes the case that there are several basic palates out there and not all of them are compatible with the so-called expert pairing suggestions. Hanni’s findings hold true for beer, too.

When I tell you that one of my favorite pairings is Pliny the Elder and a snickerdoodle cookie, it may turn out to be the best thing to ever tickle your palate – or the worst. The great thing about beer, whether cooking with it or drinking it, is that there’s always more than one right answer.

Blair Anthony Robertson: (916) 321-1099, @Blarob

Resources for cooking with beer:

  • Alaskan Brewing Co: The award-winning brewery offers many recipes for each of its beers – there are 56 recipes for its amber ale alone. (
  • Brooklyn Brewery: Garrett Oliver, author of “The Brewmaster’s Table,” is brewmaster and partner. The site offers many beer recipes, including the great backyard favorite, beer-can chicken. (
  • Deschutes Brewery: This Bend, Ore., legend has an array of recipes, from a vinaigrette made with pale ale to a beef stroganoff with Hop in the Dark Cascadian dark ale. (
  • Chef Sean Z. Paxton is an expert at cooking with beer. The site includes numerous recipes for cooking and home brewing.

Halcyon chicken breakfast enchilada

This breakfast sticks to your ribs and sets you up right for the rest of the day. Creamy, spicy, and hearty, this recipe requires at least 1 hour of marinating time before cooking and serving. It pairs well with the beer used to marinate the chicken – an American wheat – because of its slightly sweet flavor that offsets the spicy pepper and tangy cheese.

Chicken and marinade:

1 cup Tallgrass Halcyon Wheat, or similar witbier

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons chopped yellow onion

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Two 5-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Scrambled eggs:

1 teaspoon butter

8 large eggs, whisked


2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups heavy cream

1 cup vegetable broth

6 ounces Swiss cheese, shredded (11/2 cups)

4 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1/2 teaspoon diced habanero pepper

1/2 cup Tallgrass Halcyon Wheat, or similar witbier


4 large flour tortillas

8 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded (2 cups)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Marinate the chicken: Combine the beer, olive oil, garlic, onion, and chives in a ziplock bag or airtight container. Add the chicken and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or as long as overnight.

Prepare a medium fire in a gas or charcoal grill. Remove the chicken from the marinade and discard the marinade. Grill the chicken until cooked through, about 12 minutes per side. The chicken can be cooked a day ahead and reserved in the refrigerator until you’re ready to assemble the enchiladas.

Scramble the eggs: Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Pour in the eggs and use a heat-proof spatula to constantly scramble the eggs as they cook. The eggs are done when they are firm and lose their gloss, about 5 minutes.

Make the sauce: Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour to form a smooth paste and then cook for 2 minutes, whisking constantly. Add the cream and broth and whisk until incorporated, about 3 minutes, taking care not to let the sauce boil. Slowly add the Swiss cheese and cream cheese and whisk until blended. Add the garlic, salt, pepper and habanero, and mix. Add the beer and stir until the foam subsides. Reduce the heat and simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally, while assembling the enchiladas.

Assemble the enchiladas: Warm the tortillas on a grill or in a microwave. Slice the chicken breast and place a few slices inside a tortilla. Top with one-quarter of the eggs and 1/2 cup of the cheddar. Roll up the tortilla and smother with the warm cheese sauce. Repeat with the remaining tortillas and filling. Top with the chives and serve immediately.

Serves 4

Black cod brûlée

This flavorful recipe is also fun to make, thanks to the blowtorch. The marinade gives this full-flavored fish a tangy bite. Pair with a sessionable, malty beer, such as an altbier, so as not to overpower the fish.

Two 12-ounce bottles of Alaskan Amber or similar beer, or 13/4 cups fruity, nontannic pinot noir

3 garlic cloves, minced

3 tablespoons grated ginger

2 cups cranberry sauce (preferably homemade)

1 1/2 cups pomegranate juice

1/4 cup dark soy sauce

6 pounds whole black cod (sablefish), cut into 8 to 10 fillets

1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

Bring the beer to a light simmer in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Do not boil. Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced by one-third, about 1 hour. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let cool completely.

Mix the garlic, ginger, cranberry sauce, pomegranate juice and soy sauce into the reduced beer. Place the cod in a baking dish or roasting pan and cover with the sauce. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Uncover the cod and braise for at least 1 hour, basting every 15 minutes and taking care not to overcook it.

Combine the brown sugar and granulated sugar in a small bowl and set aside.

Place the cod on a large serving plate and sprinkle each fillet with a fine layer of the sugar mixture. With a kitchen blowtorch, melt the sugar until it forms a crispy topping. Serve immediately.

Serves 8-10

Pale ale pineapple brown sugar cupcakes

Sweet, but a little sour, pineapple is a fruit that brings so many flavors to any recipe it touches. These sweet treats get an added boost from a pale ale that’s made with hop varieties that present mango and other tropical fruit flavors. A gentle and floral pale ale also pairs very well with this three-bite dessert. This recipe comes from chef Erin Austin, who owns the Cupcake Brewery in North Carolina. Austin makes delicious baked treats, not beer, but regularly uses the state’s generous craft beer offerings to enhance her stellar recipes.

Note: The recipe will work best if all ingredients are at room temperature.


1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter

1 1/4 cups firmly packed light brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 eggs

One 15-ounce can crushed pineapple, drained and juice reserved

4 1/4 cups cake flour

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup whole milk

One 12-ounce bottle pale ale


1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter

1 1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

4 cups confectioners’ sugar, plus more as needed

2 tablespoons half-and-half, as needed

Candied pineapple (optional)

Make the cupcakes: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line muffin cups with paper liners.

Cream the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar together in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the vanilla. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until well blended. Slowly add 1/4 cup of the reserved pineapple juice.

Combine the cake flour and baking powder in a medium mixing bowl. Add one-third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, using the electric mixer on low speed, until just combined. Add the milk, beating until just combined. Add another one-third of the flour mixture to the batter, beating until just combined. Add the pale ale. Add the remaining one-third of the dry mixture, beating until just combined. Fold in the crushed pineapple until evenly distributed.

Divide the batter equally among the prepared muffin tins. Bake for 17 minutes, or until just lightly golden. Cool completely on wire racks, about 45 minutes.

Make the icing: Melt 1/2 cup of the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the brown sugar and vanilla until well mixed. Add the remaining 1/2 cup butter and stir until slightly thickened, like a runny caramel, about 17 minutes. Remove the mixture from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

Pour the confectioners’ sugar into a large mixing bowl. Slowly mix in the brown sugar mixture with an electric mixer until the frosting is light and fluffy. (If the icing is too stiff, slowly add the half-and-half, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it’s spreadable. If the icing is too thin, add more confectioners’ sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, until spreadable.)

Pipe the icing on the cooled cupcakes and top each one with a small piece of candied pineapple, if using.

Makes 24 cupcakes