Beer has often been seated at the kid’s table of the culinary world. We have been conditioned by various media to be content to have a pale American lager in one hand and either a burger, hot dog, buffalo wing or pizza in the other. While some of those pairings work quite well, we should not be limited by them.
Beer can be amazingly complex in flavor and aroma. It can smell and taste of freshly baked bread or of fresh flowers, citrus and pine. It can be surprisingly sweet or bash you over the head bitter. With over 70 different styles of beer, the gamut of flavor combinations is large indeed.
But how do you pair beer with food? As simple as it may sound, the search for surprising, sublime, or simply obvious pairings can be daunting… but only if you let it be. Below are a few guidelines to pairing beer and food. Just remember, these are just guidelines meant to give you a place to start at. They are by no means a definitive list or hard, fast rules. I encourage you to experiment and most of all, have fun!
- Read the label on the bottle of the beer. Knowing what food to pair with what beer, for the veteran, simply comes down to knowing what style of beer you will be drinking as each style accentuates different aspects of beer’s flavor components. To the beginner unfamiliar with the multitude of beer styles, rest assured, it’s all on the label. Brewers like to put right on their labels what style of beer is in the bottle and what kind of flavors to expect. While much of it is just marketing rhetoric, it is a very good place to start.
- Follow your nose. he human tongue can distinguish roughly five flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Whether or not you are aware of it, how something smells contributes greatly to how it tastes. Think back to a time when you were sick and your nasal passages were congested. Did you find yourself ordering a favorite comfort food only to find it doesn’t taste as good as you’ve had it? You may not have noticed it in the past but each style of beer has a different aroma profile. This is largely dependent on the amount of malt or hops used in making the beer. How a beer smells will be a good precursor to how a beer tastes. Use these olfactory cues to help you decide what food to pair with the beer you are drinking or plan to drink.
- Intensity. Something that is often overlooked is intensity. Generally, you want to match a beer of particular intensity to a similarly intense food. For example, an American IPA is a hoppy, very bitter style of beer with an above average alcohol content. You wouldn’t want to pair this with shrimp and scallops sauteed in olive oil because the intensity of the beer would overwhelm the delicate flavors of the seafood. Likewise, you wouldn’t want to serve baby back ribs slathered in barbecue sauce with a Belgian Witbier because in this case, the ribs would over power the beer. The key thing to remember from this point is to pair with an eye towards balance.
- Looking for Harmonies. Like any boy band worth its weight in album sales, you want to find pairings where the flavors harmonize with each other, where specific flavors in the food echo those find in beer (or vice versa). For example, a dry stout has roasted barley and coffee aromas with a flavor profile of roasted grains, dry coffee-like finish and bittersweet chocolate in the palette. Try pairing this with foods of similar flavors such as bittersweet chocolates, fudge brownies or coffee cake. The roasted grain flavors also match well with grilled meats that have a bit of char in them.
- Opposites attract. As a counterpoint to guideline number 4, try a pairing of contrasting flavors. Thai, and even Indian curries, with their spiciness and heat can be counterbalanced by a malty bock. Perhaps something rich, sweet and creamy as flán can be counterbalanced by an American Pale Ale. The sweet/bitter pairing seems to me to be a natural fit as this sort of tug of war is prevalent in every beer as each beer style is a reflection of the balance between malty sweetness and hop bitterness.
- Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? Each and every beer style is influenced by the geography in which it was developed. Knowing this, look at what parts of the world your particular beer was developed in and see what the local cuisine is. The märzen or Oktoberfest style beers of Germany often go well with sauerkraut and bratwurst. Spicy Indian food just so happens to be a serendipitous pairing with the hoppy IPA style. The English have often enjoyed stouts with oysters. And the Belgians have kept the secret of beer and cheese to themselves for far to long.
- Chuck it all out the window. That’s right, take everything you’ve just read and toss it out the window. Finding an excellent beer and food pairing is just as much about the journey as it is the destination. You know your own palette better than anyone so go out and experiment and come to your own conclusions. Just remember to have fun and drink responsibly.
If you would like to learn more about beer and food pairings, there are many resources online that you can find. I Googled “beer and food pairings” and was able to get a wealth of information. More importantly, the power of the written word cannot be overstated. I would like to take this opportunity to encourage you to purchase and read The Brewmasters Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food by Garrett Oliver and The Best of American Beer and Food Pairing and Cooking with Craft Beer by Lucy Saunders. Both were instrumental in the creation of this list and in helping me begin my journey to discovering good food and good beer.