Sour beer can add complexity to food

Pucker-faced sour beer lovers can't get enough gose, Berliner Weisse, fruit lambic, and other distinctive varieties. But if all you're doing is drinking the stuff, well, you're missing one of the great joys of these special ales.

Because cooking with sour beer adds a whole other flavor dimension to your favorite recipes.

That's something I came to learn after cracking open the first beer book I ever bought: Michael Jackson's Beer Companion, the British beer writer's outstanding 1993 guide to beer styles around the world. Tucked in the back is a handful of recipes for dishes he encountered in his travels, and one plate caught my eye: carbonnade flamande.

It's basically a beef stew of the sort my mother made for family dinners on Tuesday nights. Occasionally, she'd splash in a cup of beer, which she said helped tenderize those cubes of chuck roast she'd picked up at the A&P.

But Jackson's recipe - well, it's not even his; he credits it to the romantic-sounding Madame Rose Blancquaert of the café De Mouterij in Oudenaarde, Belgium - showed how sour beer could transform even the most simple dish.

Instead of a mere bottle of lager, Jackson advised using Liefmans Goudenband, a Flemish brown ale that comes wrapped in tissue paper because it is, in fact, that special.

Its painstaking fermentation includes a year of aging in cellar casks to produce a tart, lactic flavor before it is blended with younger, sweeter beer. The finished product is spectacularly complex, with the light, sweet caramel flavor of dark malt mingling with a palate-cleansing, cherrylike sourness from lactobacillus, a bacterium that is the signature of this old-world style.

Added to carbonnade flamande, Goudenband gives a simple peasant dish the special sweet-and-sour quality so typical of Flemish fare.

In the years after experimenting with that recipe, I encountered the flavors time after time in travels to Belgium:

At Restaurant In't Spinnekopke, an old, subterranean spot in Brussels, they serve a plate of rabbit cooked in lambic, the spontaneously fermented ale brewed mostly just southwest of the city in the Zenne Valley. The rustic brew complemented its meaty, savory flavor with a sharp, vinegary bite.

At Den Dyver, a stylish restaurant along one of Bruges' scenic canals, they once noisily whipped up a dessert of sabayon au gueuze. Similar to the classic Italian frothy dessert made with egg yolks, sugar, and marsala wine, this one had the added barnyard aroma of gueuze, a blend of old and young lambics.

At 3 Fonteinen in Beersel, heart of the lambic region, delicate lamb chops and local vegetables were served with a sauce made with kriek, the cherry-flavored lambic.

And at almost every restaurant in Flanders, mussels were steamed in locally blended sour ales.

Meanwhile, in America, cooking with sour beer is still in its infancy. Though sours - especially gose and Berliner weisse - are suddenly trendy, I haven't encountered many restaurants or cookbooks incorporating these brews into their recipes.

For example, author Stephen Beaumont offers just one sour beer recipe in his latest release, The Beer & Food Companion (Jacqui Small). Not surprisingly, it's for carbonnade flamande, made with a Flemish red ale instead of a brown.

And author John Holl offers just one in his newly released The American Craft Beer Cookbook (Storey), for a superb vinaigrette made with kriek.

Mostly, he and other cookbook authors echo what I see in craft beer circles these days: Sour beers are better as an accompaniment to favorite meals, not as a critical ingredient. Thus Holl, for example, suggests pairing a fresh watermelon-and-tomato salad served over endive leaves with a sour. I tried it with Free Will Kriek Lambic, brewed in Perkasie, Bucks County, and his advice was accurate enough: The sour contrasted nicely with the melon's sweetness.

But I took it one step further at dessert, with my own Philly specialty: Kriek à la Breyers. My old friend Michael Jackson would've loved it.

"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell, executive director of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild. joe@joesixpack.net.