Grain. Yeast. Water.
You can make some truly sensational stuff with just those three ingredients. Beer, for one. Whiskey, for another. In fact, in a sense whiskey is distilled beer. The two live in harmony in so many ways, yet outside of certain places like the US, they are rarely brought together to enjoy at the same time. I’m only just realising typing this how rarely I see it in the UK. Or how infrequently I enjoy the two together. Something must be done about this!
The Boilermaker, or the ‘shot and a beer’, is the most classic example. The serve, which basically entails either drinking your beer and then taking a shot of whiskey, or doing the opposite, evokes dingy dives or steel workers blowing off steam, and is an efficient, classic, and charming ritual. But it’s not the only way to enjoy whiskey and beer.
Paul Hletko is the founder and distiller of FEW Spirits, and has established himself as one of the key figures in the ambitious US craft distiller scene over the last few years. It’s a movement that has run parallel to the similarly popular craft beer scene, so it’s not surprising he’s embraced the latter with a page dedicated to ‘FEW & A BREW’ on the brand’s website. Which meant he seemed like the appropriate person to ask for advice on how to pair like a pro.
A winning combo
Being in the US, Hletko is in the right place to comment on this too. It might be the home of the beer and whiskey pairing, but he says that “while we have many names for it (boilermaker, shot ‘n’ beer), each way of bringing beer and spirit together has its place and perfect time, as well as the perfect serve”. He added that, “we love helping people pick what we think is perfect, and welcome you to find your own perfect serve”. This is good news, and that’s exactly what we want to do.
We need to start by understanding why this combo works in the first place. Hletko thinks the combination of the refreshing nature beer and the intense flavours of whiskey meeting up makes each element shine. But when there’s so much variety out there in terms of style and flavour, there’s never going to be one hard-and-fast rule that works. So his first advice to pairing the two is to be open and try different things. “Different people can, and will, prefer different pairs. I may like one pairing you don’t like and vice versa, and we are both correct! So, first, don’t be afraid! And if you don’t like our suggestions, don’t worry about it!”
He then says that his move is to break down whether his pairing will be “like and like” or “like and unlike”. In other words, you could try and match up the flavours of the two by pairing a fruitier beer with a fruitier spirit (like and like), or instead, contrast and bring new elements to the table by pairing a fruitier beer with a more oaky spirit. Alternatively, stronger beer and stronger spirit, or stronger beer and lower ABV spirit. Try a couple of variations out yourself, and you’ll soon work out which approach suits you.
Most people would think of this as being the ultimate DIY serve. As drinks go, pouring whiskey and beer into two separate glasses doesn’t require much mixology magic or tonnes of equipment. Hletko says it’s not at all simple, and that elevating the serve is the key. “If you are just grabbing a random beer and a random spirit, that may not be the most elevated, elegant serve. But, if you deliberately try and pair specifically, you’ll either love it or learn a bit more!”
So, let’s see a few examples. First, Hletko puts the FEW Bourbon together with a hefeweizen, a traditional Bavarian wheat beer that literally translates to ‘wheat beer with yeast’. “The spiciness of our bourbon pairs with the nice fruity and sweet hefe. Since we use a Belgian beer yeast to ferment the spirit, it makes sense that the similar foundations work well together,” Hletko says. Next, FEW Rye, which he likes to pair with a nice hoppy IPA. “The floral, slightly fruity rye matches up with the bold hoppy and citrus notes in the IPA, elevating both”.
As for FEW Cold Cut, a blend of FEW Bourbon and cold brew coffee, that goes well with a stout. “The rich creamy notes in the stout pair perfectly with the subtle cold brew coffee notes in Cold Cut,” Hletko explains. You might be learning about how he’s working out the logic behind his pairings, but also note these are easily replicable. You should be able to get these styles of beers in most shops and pubs. Last, but definitely not least, FEW Immortal Rye and sours are fantastic, according to Hletko. “The fruitiness from the Immortal Rye with the tart fruit of sour beers are just magical. One of my favorite pairings!”
Remember, whatever you end up pairing, the most important thing is that you enjoy it.