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Beer's best friend

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Beer drinkers locally and nationally are experiencing something of a craft brewery renaissance. According to Datafiniti, Rochester now ranks 16th per capita nationally with 3.2 breweries for every 100,000 people. The trend slakes thirsts, but beer lovers often crave food with their brews. Several local breweries recognize that and have put together menus to meet both needs. Some brewpubs treat food as an accessory, a snack, to go with their beers, while others make food more of a meal-like priority, on par with their brews.

As part of an occasional series looking at how area brewpubs pair food with their beers, CITY checked out three food-serving breweries close to the center city. Since most microbreweries have the freedom to experiment, their beer menus are always changing, and established beer and food pairings are rare, so my girlfriend and I designed our own as we went along.

Roc Brewing Co. (56 South Union Street; 794-9798; rocbrewingco.com) has been pouring since 2011. The brewery's food offerings are more in the realm of snacks — broken up into three categories, Small Bites, Naan Pizzas, and Tot Waffles — meant to cure beer-induced munchies, and its kitchen utilizes prepared ingredients to make the most of its modest space and staff.

We started with a strawberry lemon sour ale (a tart, summery brew with more lemon than strawberry notes) and a Lagerithm Lager (a well-balanced malty amber). The sour ale worked better with our first "course," pretzels with beer cheese dip, and gave a welcome counter-punch to the slightly sweet pretzels. While the pretzels aren't homemade, the beer cheese dip — with its slightly spicy maltiness — is. And is there really a better combination than cold beer and warm pretzels?

The lager better harmonized with the Buffalo chicken dip, served with fresh tortilla chips that mainly functioned as a vehicle for the dip. Surprisingly less spicy than the beer cheese dip, it was still pleasantly salty with a satisfying blend of blue cheese, shredded chicken, and hot sauce.

We followed those up with a toasty, nutty, malty, coffee-noted dark mild ale and a strong, grapefruity Whoopass Douple IPA, and paired our brews with two of the brewery's tot waffles — tater tots reimagined with a waffle iron — the vegetarian, poutine tot waffle (mushroom gravy, cheese curds, chives) and the Roc tot waffle (Rochester-style meat hot sauce, cheddar cheese, sour cream, scallions).

The Whoopass had a dry element that balanced the cinnamony sweetness of the Roc waffle, which lacked in the customary spiciness of a Rochester hot sauce. This tot waffle went well — in a breakfast sort of way — with the earthy, coffee characteristics of the dark mild ale. The poutine tot waffle didn't do the job, and the gravy and melted cheese curds congealed quickly. The tot waffle concept is interesting, but would perhaps be better served in smaller portions, before it gets overbearing. As my girlfriend eloquently stated, "That's a lot of tot."

Swiftwater Brewing (378 Mt. Hope Avenue; 530-3471; swiftwaterbrewing.com), open since 2015, has a limited, but interesting menu that puts an emphasis on fresh, locally sourced ingredients. There's some atypical bar food, but Swiftwater also brings meal-worthy productions to the table.

We started with a biting, tangy cherry sour ale and an order of Sriracha hummus, plated with sliced cucumber, bell pepper, carrots, and celery as well as a sliced, crusty, house-made baguette. The hummus was accentuated not only with house-made Sriracha, but also quartered ripe, cherry tomatoes, which contrasted the creamy, nutty hummus. The cherry sour, however, wasn't such a good match, but that's a function of the choice, not the ale.

The cherry sour's crisp acidity did meld well with Swiftwater's grilled cheese sandwich, which used sharp cheddar, brie, garlic, shallots, a thick slice of a local heirloom tomato, and ham from McCann's Local Meats. It also paired magnificently with Swiftwater's dry Irish stout, which is crisper and lighter than typical stouts. Similarly, the stout provided a soothing accompaniment to the hearty bacon corn chowder.

We ended with a lamb burger — topped with tzatziki, feta, caramelized onions, cucumber, heirloom tomato, and cherry glaze — and a Gilda's Club Red Door Rye Ale. The ale had a dry bite, like an IPA, but finished slightly sweet, thanks to the rye. It seems as though a darker, more full-bodied brew would've better complemented the lamb burger, but it didn't diminish the experience. The burger — pink inside, a crisp char outside — had a tantalizing array of flavors, and was enhanced by the crisp peppery Carolina slaw, which included red and yellow bell pepper and the flavors of mustard seed, celery seed, and coriander.

The Rohrbach Brewing location (97 Railroad Street; 546-8020; rohrbachs.com) near the Rochester Public Market went through an overhaul in 2015. Like many brewpubs, Rohrbach has a rotating list of seasonal brews, but also retains its unflinching list of classic brews that many Rochesterians know. Although no published pairings exist on its food menu, a knowledgeable server made solid recommendations.

Unlike so many brewpubs, Rohrbach's pretzels — four logs served with two sauces — are homemade. We opted for peanut butter honey mustard and traditional German mustard, both homemade, both working well on the pretzel logs. The pretzels were hot and pillowy inside with a crisp browned exterior, the layers of flavor pairing well with those of an Abandoned Rail (a Flanders red ale with stone-fruit characteristics, aged in bourbon barrels for 18 months) as well as a Next Door Ale (a golden ale with toasted malts and floral notes), but it's hard to imagine any beer not playing nicely with these pretzels.

Next, a Rohrbach classic recommended by our server — Highland Lager, a subtle toasty amber — to balance Rohrbach's assertive wood-fired wings. Rohrbach offers five different styles; we chose garlic-truffle Parmesan. Smoked and then grilled over cherry wood, these wings were crisp and firm with a distinct, but not overpowering smoky flavor. They had more complex flavors than most wings, all without a hint of greasiness. We made another fittingly congruous match, pairing a dry stout (medium-light body with chocolate and coffee notes) with a Margherita pizza. The stout proved an outstanding counterpart to the smoky char of the crust, with its richness also rounding off the acidity of the pizza. The pizza itself had a thin floppy crust and a homemade tomato sauce that tastefully balanced sweet with salty, topped with fresh mozzarella and fresh basil.

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