How to Pair the Right Beer with the Right Food
Never has there been a better time to enjoy beer and food pairings, because never has the beer scene been more exciting! With the greater variety of beer styles available and the diversities within each style being widely available, your beer pairings can be more sophisticated than ever.
This article will help you learn the basics of beer and food pairings, but there are some special considerations we need to cover first.
1) The taster’s frame of mind is more important than you might imagine. Someone on vacation and relaxed will probably enjoy their beer and food much more than someone stressed after a hard day at work. Your mood, your environment, who you’re with, and other factors all influence the way a beer tastes.
2) There are lots of variations in beers and in foods, depending on the specific recipe and preparation. So while, in general, Stouts go well with oysters, the actual experience of combining the flavors should be considered more important than the “rules” we are about to share.
There’s a lot that goes into evaluating a beer. If you’re not already familiar with the different aspects of beer and how they impact taste, then start by reading “How to Evaluate Your Beer.” The rest of this article will make much more sense when you understand how malt, hops, aroma, sweetness, body, alcohol content, carbonation, sourness, fermentation, and special ingredients affect the flavor of different varieties of beer.
A few basics to consider are:
- Malt flavors. Malt flavors generally compliment caramelized and toasted flavors in foods. They can also soften heat. Most beers have a discernable malt flavor, which is why beer, in general, goes well with spicy food.
- Hops bitterness. The bitterness of hops pairs well with spicy, fatty, rich foods. It cuts through fat, helping you enjoy more of the fried, rich, and cheesy foods you love.
- Hops flavors and aromas. (These are different from the hops bitterness.) Hops flavors typically compliment fruit, citrus, spices, herbs, and chocolate.
- Sweetness and body. Sweetness softens heat, so that may make a sweet beer a good partner to spicy food in some situations. For the most part, experts recommend matching the body of a beer with the body of the food: heavy beers with heavy foods, and light beers with lighter foods.
- Alcohol content. Alcohol accentuates heat and capsaicin (what makes peppers hot), so lower alcohol beers usually go better with spicy foods.
- Carbonation. Carbonation can enhance spiciness initially, but then it also lifts flavors away and cleanses your palate. It also cuts through fat, umami, and sweet flavors.
- Tartness and sourness. The bright, electric flavor of tart and sour beers goes well with rich, fatty foods.
- Fermentation. The phenols and esters produced in fermentation can yield spicy and/or fruity flavors that can compliment or clash with different foods. Esters tend to go well with fruits, while phenols work well with spicy food and contrast nicely with high fat foods and umami flavors.
- Special ingredients. When beer is brewed with fruit or coffee, for example, or when it is barrel aged, those special ingredients can dramatically affect the flavor, which will affect what foods these beers pair well with.
Just like with beer, there’s a lot that goes into evaluating the tastes and flavors of food. (By the way, taste and flavor are NOT the same thing! Who knew?) So if that’s an unfamiliar subject to you, go read our blog on that subject before proceeding: “How to Evaluate Your Food.” Once you’ve got a foundational understanding of assessing the flavor profiles of both beer and food, you’ll be much more prepared to successfully enjoy beer and food pairings.
You can approach beer and food pairings from three different angles:
- Complement. This occurs when both the beer and the food share a similar flavor. An example would be pairing a beer with chocolaty notes with a chocolate dessert.
- Contrast. If you choose flavors that counterbalance, you’re pairing with the “contrasting flavors” method. An example would be pairing a beer that has a caramelly flavor with roasted meat and vegetables.
- Cut. Some elements of certain beers cut through specific flavors, cleansing your palate and allowing you to enjoy more of the foods you love. For example, a highly carbonated beer will refresh your tastebuds after each sip when eating fatty or spicy foods.
Now that we’ve covered how to evaluate beer, how to evaluate food, and the three approaches to beer and food pairings, let’s explore some specific pairings to try:
Belgian Whitbier + Salad with Citrus Dressing
The soft, citrusy whitbier should go well with this light dish and a citrus dressing. Add in some feta or goat cheese for interest.
Blonde Ale + Kung Pao Chicken
The malty smoothness of the blonde ale will contrast nicely with this sweet and spicy Asian food. Stir in some rice, and you’ve got a well balanced culinary experience.
Light Lager + Tikka Masala
The refreshing lager will cleanse your palate in between tastes of this spicy, garlicy dish, allowing you to better appreciate every bite. Enjoy a toasty piece of naan on the side to complete this delicious meal.
Pilsner + Salmon
The Pilsner’s pronounced hops flavor, aroma, and bitterness will contrast nicely with the fatty fish, especially if it’s served with a sweet sauce. Maybe include some vegetables roasted in butter as a side.
Hefeweizen + Hot Dog
The flavors of clove and banana in the hefeweizen contrast with the pungent flavors of mustard, pickles, and cured meat. If you’re making the effort to pair the right food with a good hefeweizen, make sure to choose a high quality dog on a fresh bun.
American Pale Lager + Chile Relleno
The balanced hops and malt flavors of the American pale lager coupled with its crisp, refreshing finish help it contrast nicely with the spiciness of Mexican food and ultimately lift the flavors off the tongue.
IPA + Coconut Curry
The strong malt and hops flavors of an IPA complement the intense, spicy, and sweet flavors in the curry. An IPA has a lot of body, and so does a good curry, so they’re perfect partners.
Porter + Bacon-Wrapped Filet Mignon
The roasted and nutty flavors in the porter will complement the rich, smoky flavor of the steak and bacon. Something creamy on the side like horseradish sauce, mashed potatoes, and/or spinach artichoke dip would go nicely, as well.
Bock + Crawfish Boil
The warm, sweet, caramelly flavor of the Bock contrasts well with the strong, spicy, and intense flavor of Cajun food. Bock should pair well with gumbo or jambalaya as well.
Stout + Oysters
The bold, nutty, and chocolaty flavors in the stout complement the silky, salty flavor of the oysters. (Lots of beers go well with oysters, but give this combo a try!)
We hope you’re inspired to try more varieties of beer and enhance the experience by pairing them with appropriate foods. If you’re interested in how to best serve different beers, read our blog titled “How to Match Beer to the Right Glass,” or watch our video on the same subject. Let us know what YOUR favorite beer/food pairings are, and please report back on your experience with any of the above suggested combinations!