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mmm... BEER

The tradition of pairing certain types of wine and food to enhance their flavor has been a staple of the culinary arts for centuries.

But with the advent of home microbrewing and the greater variety of beers, lagers and ales now available from craft breweries, beer and food pairing has grown exponentially in popularity over the past decade.

"The big thing with beer in the last 10-15 years is it's become a lot like wine," said Wade Heapy, owner of The Fireside in Detroit Lakes. "So many microbreweries have popped up that it's become a real growth segment of the alcohol industry."

With so many of these craft breweries creating fruit, chocolate and even coffee-tinged varieties of beer, lager and ale malt beverages have a much larger flavor profile than they once had, Heapy added.

"There are so many great, unique beers out there... from light drinking, crisp beers to heavy, bold stouts and bocks," he said. "It just gives you such a great range, like wines do."

The Fireside has done "quite a few" beer pairing events in the past couple of years, including one with Schell's Brewery of New Ulm, Minn., and another with Summit Brewing of St. Paul.

"We're looking at doing another one this winter," he added. "It's fun keeping it local, with Minnesota breweries - it adds that hometown touch."

Heapy also enjoys the fact that beer pairing events are often more casual than their wine-based counterparts.

"I actually prefer doing a beer pairing dinner," he said. "The crowd seems to be more into it, they're a little rowdier. It's been cool."

Heapy said The Fireside has also worked with Zorbaz in Detroit Lakes to host a couple of beer pairing events, because Zorbaz has 48 different varieties of beer on tap and "probably the best selection (of varieties) that I've seen. The staff is really into that segment of the business."

Tate Jansen, an operating partner at Zorbaz, said beer pairing has become increasingly popular with customers because of the wide variety of styles available. Besides the pairing dinners where they partnered with Fireside, Zorbaz has also hosted a couple of small events of its own.

"It (the beer pairing trend) really started in the 1980s, when a lot of the craft and micro breweries started bringing those (non-traditional) styles back," he said.

For many years before that, the "big three" beer companies dominated the market with mainly one type of "yellow" beer, but "there's been a nice resurgence (in variety),"Jansen continued.

Because Zorbaz is a Mexican restaurant, "we tend to have some spicy foods here, and a lot of real 'hoppy' beers," he added. "They tend to go really well with spicy foods because it kind of cuts the heat."

Many 'hoppy' beers have what Jansen calls "citrus notes" in them, ranging from lemon to grapefruit. Surly Furious, a variety of India pale ale, has an almost bitter taste, with grapefruit and pine needles as undertones, he added.

The name India pale ale comes from the days of the British Empire, when India was a colony of Great Britain, Jansen explained. When beer was shipped from Britain to India, a lot of hops was added to the brew, as a preservative.

Today, the addition of higher quantities of hops is more for flavor than preservation purposes, he added.

Besides the pale ales (both American and Indian varieties), Zorbaz also offers dark lagers and ales, bocks, mild lagers and ales, cider, stouts and seasonal varieties, as well as standard tap beers like Grain Belt.

The menu of beers at Zorbaz tends to change from week to week, Jansen added, as new varieties are added and seasonal varieties are dropped.

Though Zorbaz does have a few bottled beers available, "we really focus on taps. Keg beer is never pasteurized, so it's fresher - the freshest beer you can get. Bottled beer definitely loses some flavor through pasteurization."

As for what varieties Zorbaz' clientele tends to favor, Jansen said there is a definite generational element to the equation.

"The older generation has a lot of brand loyalty, while the younger generation isn't necessarily loyal to any one brand -- they want to try everything on the market."

The Lodge on Lake Detroit and the Speak Easy in Detroit Lakes have held several beer pairing and tasting events as well (about three per year are held at The Lodge, according to co-owner Chris Holland Mehlhaff).

For those who are involved in home brewing clubs, or would like to host a beer pairing dinner in their own home, there are several books on the market to assist them with their selections.

"The Best of American Beer and Food" by Lucy Saunders; "The Brewmaster's Table" by Garrett Oliver; and "Tasting Beer: An Insider's Guide to the World's Greatest Drink" by Randy Mosher are just a few of the more popular resources available.