When it comes to the Yakima Valley's wine industry, food pairing is a well-established art. Most people already have a basic grasp of the red-wine-with-red-meat, white-wine-with-poultry rules. And there are dozens of vineyards and tasting rooms with well-trained sommeliers to help you find that perfect bottle to complement your meal.
But if it all feels just a little bit too stuffy -- or if wine just isn't your thing -- don't fret. The Valley has a place for you, too.
Welcome to Beer Country.
The Yakima Valley has seen the growth of craft breweries in recent years as more entrepreneurs decide to take advantage of the No. 1 hop-producing area in the country.
And like wine, beer goes great with food.
Actually, it goes better. Or, at least, it's easier to pair.
So says Jeff Winn, president and brewmaster at Yakima Craft Brewing Co.
"Craft beer is much easier to pair with food than wine is," Winn says. "The reason for that is because craft beer has such a broad range. ... Wine is fairly narrow in its taste profile."
Wine tends to be red, white and rose. But beer ranges from extremely light lagers to dark, nearly black IPAs, with a ton of variety in between, Winn says.
That variety will be on display at Saturday's Fresh Hop Ale Festival in downtown Yakima. More than 30 brewers (plus wine, cider and food vendors) will compete for top honors and highlight their latest batches.
It's a chance for ale aficionados and novices alike to learn the differences between craft and macrobrews. And there are many.
The main one, Winn says, is that mass-produced beers, such as Coors and Budweiser, aren't made for tasting. They are simply a vehicle for alcohol: The high carbonation and cold temperature prevents the drinker from tasting the beer, he says.
"Craft beer is different," Winn says. "A good ale, you don't want to serve it below 45 degrees. Cold really interferes with taste."
Craft beers are also lighter on carbonation and have a more moderate alcohol content, he says. High alcohol content (known as being "hot" in the industry) also interferes with taste.
And craft beer is all about taste, which is why it's perfect for pairing.
When pairing beer and food, one key is to couple like-flavors, says Regan Rinker of Iron Horse Brewery in Ellensburg. A strong meal requires a strong beer to stand up to it.
"If you have a really robust, spicy dish, you might want to pick a beer that has enough flavor backbone to either cut through those flavors or stand up to those flavors," Rinker says. "You don't want to lose the beer in the food, or lose the food in the beer."
Rinker, who is in sales at Iron Horse and also writes a food-pairing blog, encourages people to experiment with beer and try to pair things that you wouldn't think go together. Explore the full range of craft beer.
"You have super light, crisp beers. You have hoppy beers. You have sweet beers. Chocolate beer, coffee beer. Red ales that have hoppy and malty flavors," Rinker says. "Beer is so ambidexterous. The way that it can match up to food is pretty incredible."
You can also try to pair up beer and food based on the spices and other flavors added to it: For example, the High Five Hefe is made with wheat, honey and ginger and pairs well with Asian foods and sweeter, tangy flavors, Rinker says. "It's amazing with sweet and sour sauces."
But beer's versatility also makes it easier to enjoy with a broad meal, too. For instance, Yakima Craft's 1982 amber ale is a good starting point, Winn says. "There isn't anything that doesn't go with an amber ale."
To really enjoy your beer and food pairing, try using the brew in the meal itself. The 1982 makes a great barbecue sauce or meatloaf, Winn says. Yakima Craft's Twin Stag Scottish Ale also makes a great, Kansas City-style barbecue sauce.
Or you can pour it over a roast in the slow cooker. Rinker used the High Five Hefe to soak fish for fish and chips. Iron Horse's 509 Style makes a wonderful base for a cheese soup or clam chowder.
"Every time I make fajitas, I use tomato paste and my garlic and all my seasonings, and then I use IPA in the sauce until it has a nice consistency," she says.
But above all, have fun when you're cooking with, pairing or even just drinking beer. After all, area brewers are having a lot of fun making it.
Fresh Hop Ale Festival
-- What: Breweries, wine and cider makers, food vendors and live music
-- When: 5-10 p.m. Saturday
-- Where: Millennium Plaza, downtown Yakima
-- Tickets: $30 in advance or $35 at the gate. Ticket price includes commemorative beer glass and $7 in scrip for beer and wine. Go to www.freshhopalefestival.com for information.