To hear Melissa Cole talk about her favourite beer and food matches is to develop a sudden, rather urgent hunger. "I love to have something simple like a Vienna Lager and a burger, or a Belgian wheat beer with a big bowl of mussels cooked with the same beer," the British beer writer says.
"New England IPA and jerk chicken was a recent discovery: the fruitiness when you make a good proper jerk chicken, the heat from the scotch bonnet peppers, that works really well with the beer. My absolute favourites, though, would be [the tart cherry beer] Kriek with a rich chocolate dessert, or [sour ale] Gueuze with blue cheese."
Few people on the planet know more about beer and food matching than Cole, but even she might find a new favourite at this month's Good Beer Week (May 11-20) in Melbourne. With dozens of "Foodie" events lined up, there's surely something for everyone – even those who instinctively reach for the wine list.
"You can always find a beer that's going to suit any food better than wine," says Jayne Lewis, co-owner of Two Birds brewery in Spotswood, and a former winemaker. "There are millions of different flavour combinations just from the basic ingredients: malt, water, hops and yeast. If you put any dish in front of me, I could find you a beer that would pair better than wine would."
But while beer can work with pretty much any food, there are some dishes where it really shines. For Lewis, whose brewery is taking part in two Foodie events (starring alongside Indian cuisine at Babu Ji Fly With Two Birds and Spanish food at Bar Nacional's I Knew Two … But Who Knows Moo?), that's anything with a bit of spice and heat.
"Beer is a really good match for spicy food," she says. "I like a hoppy IPA with the fresher type of spicy food, particularly Vietnamese cuisine."
You might expect a brewer to be positive about beer and food, but Paul Wilson, well-respected chef and owner of Wilson & Market, has no such loyalty. He'll be taking part in Good Beer Week for the first time, but he's no newcomer to beer. "I've always loved it," he says. "There a beer for spice, for sour, for earthy food, for everything. It's really versatile."
One of his favourite combinations – imperial stout with chocolate pudding – will be on the menu at Biodynamics & Beer, an event featuring beer made by Byron Bay's Stone & Wood, at Wilson & Market.
"That's just heaven," he says. "The two together are just meant to be; the stout has strong vanilla notes, strong coffee notes, and it works so well with chocolate. That's the most complete beer-and-food match for me, but I also love a really rich blue cheese with stout, or saison with oysters and seafood. And when you've got some slow-cooked meat, I love the brown ales, the malty ales, the complex Belgian beers. That's a real experience."
Cheese works as well as anything with beer. There are various reasons for this – as Cole points out, we often eat crackers and bread, both grain-based, with cheese, so a barley-based companion makes sense – but experimentation is its own reward, as Lewis has found. "Saison and stinky cheese is a match made in heaven," she says.
Other beer matches might not seem so obvious, but work just as well. Spain is better known for its wine than its beer (although the quality of the latter has come on hugely in recent years) but its food is perfectly matched to beer, according to Lewis.
"If you go to Spain, they drink a lot of beer; it goes really well with the style of food they eat," she says. "There's lots at the saltier end of the spectrum, and I think beer is absolutely perfect to go along with that. It does a great job of cleansing and refreshing."
Cole, who will be in Melbourne during Good Beer Week to take part in Good Beer Mates, a celebration of London's burgeoning brewing scene at The Catfish in Fitzroy, says that beer's diversity of flavours can be intimidating when it comes to food matching.
"It can be difficult to get your head around, but it's the best homework in the world!" she says. "My advice is: listen to your gut. If you think 'I'd like to try such-and-such a food with this beer', you'll generally be right."
She's currently working on a book, The Brewer's Kitchen, about cooking with beer, which will be released in October. Using beer as an ingredient can be as rewarding as matching beer to food, she says. "Think about what's in the beer, how the beer is made; if you deconstruct it, you'll get a much better idea of how to use it in cooking," she says.
It helps that cooking is a similar exercise to brewing, as Wilson knows well. He's hosting a second event, BBQ & Brews, alongside Bridge Road Brewers, and they've cooked up an intriguing culinary beer together. "We've managed to develop a beer made with purple corn, from Peru," he says. "It has just been harvested in Australia for the first time. The colour is extraordinary!"
The energy and excitement around beer and food during Good Beer Week is equally extraordinary; the problem, Lewis says, is that it's not as much of a year-round phenomenon as it should be. "There's still a long way to go," she says. "The understanding of beer and food pairing is not where it needs to be just yet."
It's improving, though, and there will be surely be plenty more newly minted enthusiasts come the end of Good Beer Week. They'd do well to heed Cole's final beer-and-food matching tip: don't get too precious.
"The minute you get into that snobby territory, then I think you lose people," she says. "It stops being the drink for the people, and that's what beer should be. It's a social lubricant first and foremost, and it just happens to be good at everything else as well."
Good Beer Week
Biodynamics & Beer: Stone & Wood beer and biodynamic produce from Transition Farm at Wilson & Market, 163-185 Commercial Road, South Yarra. Sat, May 12, noon-4pm. Tickets $100.
Ale of a Time's Luke Robertson and Melissa Cole talk all things beer, London, writing and food at The Catfish, 30 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. Mon, May 14 6.30pm-late. Free entry.
Babu Ji Fly With Two Birds: five-course Indian street food feast at Baba Ji with beer by Two Birds Brewing. 4-6 Grey Street, St Kilda. Tue, May 15, 7pm-10pm. Tickets $55.
I Knew Two… But Who Knows Moo? Eight Two Birds beers with three-course Spanish menu. Bar Nacional, 727 Collins Street, Docklands. Wed, May 16, 6pm-9pm. Tickets $74.
BBQ & Brews: Luxe barbecue and beers from Bridge Road Brewers. Wilson & Market, 163-185 Commercial Road, South Yarra. Fri, May 18, 7pm-11pm. Tickets $75.
Tickets to these and dozens of other Good Beer Week events are available from goodbeerweek.com.au.