Enjoy craft brews with food in the great outdoors

Maybe it was the circumstances: We'd been three days in the back country of Eagle Cap Wilderness in northeast Oregon, and the food choices were formed around practical considerations, such as refrigeration and unwillingness to haul more than 25 pounds of clothing and survival gear on my back. So bottled, craft beer — and the foods that go great with it — just didn't make the cut.

But back at the trailhead, I'd planned ahead for the very moment when our band of thirsty trail warriors would be hankering for a frosty wet one. I'd shrugged the sweaty, heavy pack from my shoulders. My dusty boots were unlaced and replaced with flip-flops. Then I reached into the still-frosty depths of the cooler that had hidden in our car beneath a space blanket for the duration of the hike and pulled out the brews, an intensely hopped India pale ale that many Willamette Valley beer folk would appreciate, Ninkasi's Tricerahops IPA.

Recipe Box

Find Jan's recipe for Muffuleta Garlic-Olive Relish for sandwiches, crackers or crostini in our searchable online Recipe Box at www.mailtribune.com/recipes.

Passing bottles around to grateful friends, we popped the caps and took long pulls. Then from deep down inside my pack, I retrieved the Rembrandt extra-aged Gouda and tossed it to the nearest friend. She unwrapped the packet, carved off a taste and passed it on. Sip and chew. Sip and chew.

Silence ensued as we enjoyed the moment.

Like I said, maybe it was the circumstances. But when we united that trail-weary hunk of nutty, caramely cheese with that fantastic beer, the union was immense.

Summer is definitely a time to enjoy the region's wonderful selection of craft beers. And a nice twist to your drinking pleasure in the wilds is that so many of them are now being sold in aluminum cans. It began in Lyon, Colo., in November 2002, when Oskar Blues Brewery launched their Canned Beer Apocalypse.

Two years later, I spoke with their marketing mastermind, Marty Jones, who said he was on board with the concept from the beginning and felt that being the first to can a high-quality, craft beer really put them on the map. What they were doing, he explained, was playing off a Southern tradition.

"Where I come from, you don't go fishing without beer in the cooler. Our canned beers have totally added a mother lode of flavor to this tradition.

"We thought the idea of our big, hoppy beer in a can was funny — no one was doing it at the time," he added.

It not only caught the market by surprise; it actually became a successful approach. These days, the number of craft breweries offering canned beer has exploded, especially in the Pacific Northwest.

"Many of Oregon's favorite craft breweries are putting their beers in cans," said Gail Oberst, publisher of Oregon Beer Growler (www.oregonbeergrowler.com), a monthly publication promoting Oregon's craft-beer industry.

"Not just because it's convenient," she added. "But because they also believe cans protect freshness better than light-penetrating bottles."

Light changes the hop oils in beer, and cans eliminate that problem. And when properly filled, cans hold far less oxygen than bottles, so beers will stay fresher longer.

In addition to protecting beer from light and oxidation, cans are lighter and cheaper to ship and recycle. They're also more transportable for the consumer, whether it's in a cooler or on a golf course. Cans often can go where glass bottles are prohibited.

These Oregon breweries are jumping onto the canned-beer bandwagon: Hopworks in Portland, Fort George Brewery and Astoria Brewing Co. in Astoria, GoodLife in Bend, Caldera in Ashland, Fearless Brewing Co. in Estacada, Hop Valley in Eugene and Seven Brides Brewing in Silverton.

"Entire businesses, like the mobile Craft Canning, started by home brewer Owen Lingley, have sprouted up to can for the smaller brewers who can't yet afford their own canning line," said Oberst. "In addition, a few producers here in Oregon have developed small growlers made of insulated metal, for the hiking/biking community."

Of all the beers you may encounter this summer, the top three styles that I consider my go-to brews, because they're refreshing and sport flavor profiles complementary to a wide range of seasonal offerings, are pale ales, IPAs and American wheat beers. They all are perfect companions to outdoor cooking.

The American wheat beer, for example, is the perfect summer-afternoon beer: medium-bodied with subtle flavors of biscuit and citrus. It's a refreshing ale from start to finish when you're looking for something to quench your thirst and partner gently with light summer cuisine.

Thanks to its well-balanced, slightly sweet maltiness and moderate hop bitterness with citrus overtones, wheat beer complements a wide range of dishes that aren't too rich, too spicy, too peppery or too sweet. For example: fresh and lightly roasted vegetables, main-dish salads of fresh greens and vegetables tossed with simple vinaigrettes, nutty cheeses, grilled meat or seafood, crepes with savory cheeses or fresh-fruit fillings and egg-based brunch dishes with mushrooms and not-too-sweet tomato sauces.

Moving up the scale a bit in hoppiness, consider pale ales: light, malty sweetness balanced by rich, hoppy bitterness. Beyond that, this is a lovely ale from the first look — it's a deep gold to copper color — to the final sip, layered in flavors ranging from highly aromatic (that's the American hops at work, bringing bold overtones of citrus, floral, exotic spices and pine), with a splash of fruitiness in the middle and ending with a medium-bodied maltiness. The foods that can blossom in such a busy profile tend to be equally bright, spicy and earthy: dishes with some chili, citrus, cumin and cilantro zing, along with the rich, earthy flavors of mushrooms, roasted corn and nuts, as well as smoky barbecue.

And then there are the IPAs. The ones I really love are constructed to flow seamlessly between the extreme bitterness of the hops and the toffee sweetness of the malts. This is to say that every sip of a well-balanced American IPA will have pronounced hoppy aroma and flavor along with substantial maltiness.

What to serve with a brash, brassy and bitter beer that bites back? For starters, consider fighting intensity with intensity.

When two opposing flavors meet and merge, if it's the right union, then the combined character is far better than either of the components alone. The bitterness of hops gets along great with the spices and light fruitiness. Hoppy beers embrace salty and umami flavors. Bitterness also scrubs a palate that's been overcome by fatty foods. And finally, the soft caramel/toffee malts will latch onto the sweet side of a given dish, such as a rich tomato or barbecue sauce, and bring the whole experience back to center, completing that more perfect union.

So stock up on your favorite, regional craft brews and head for the great outdoors. Here are a few recipes that would truly complement both the adventure and the beer.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author.

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