By Jack Kenny
Beer people can and do drink whatever they want with every kind of food. There are no rules, or even guidelines, that say which type of beer is proper for a given dish or course. A Rolling Rock drinker will uncap his favorite green bottle along with a bowl of chocolate pudding, thank you very much.
There are, however, suggestions galore for those who want to enhance the dining experience with a brew that will complement the meal. On-premise people probably have had some experience with food-beer pairings, but off premise the beverage and meal recommendations pretty much take place in the wine aisles. Some basic ideas and suggestions could extend that experience to the beer section.
Everyone knows something about pairing wine with food, and some know more than others. What they probably don’t know is that some beers are considered more appropriate than wine with certain dishes. A good example is spicy food: There’s nothing like a malty lager to counter the power of spices and capsaicin. Also, rich foods are well complemented by beers that are somewhat acidic, such as a Flanders red ale. Happily, there is no one beer for any type of meal.
Helpful information about pairings, as well as specific style recommendations, is available at a multitude of websites, but in particular at the site of the Brewers Association (brewersassociation.org). The BA recommends three points to keep in mind when selecting a beer for food.
The first is “Match strength with strength.” A delicate dish works best with a delicate beer, they say, and the same with highly flavored foods and assertive beers. Keep in mind that the strength of a beer doesn’t mean just its alcohol percentage, but also its malt character, hop bitterness, sweetness, richness and more.
“Find harmonies” is the second point to consider. Sharing a common flavor or aroma elements works well between beer and food. One good example: “the clean caramelly flavors of an Oktoberfest lager and roasted pork.”
Third is “Consider sweetness, bitterness, carbonation, heat (spice) and richness.” This is about interactions of food and beer, which can be specific and predictable. “Taking advantage of these interactions ensures that the food and beer will balance each other, with one partner not throwing the match out of whack. One sort of has to parse these out one by one as the situation demands, and find flavors that will enhance one another.”
Some specific interactions:
- Hop bitterness, roasted malt, carbonation and alcohol in beer create a balance with the sweetness, richness (fat) and umami in food.
- Beer’s sweetness and maltiness balances food’s spiciness (chili heat) and acidity.
- Hop bitterness emphasizes spiciness and the heat from chilis.
The BA’s beer and food matching chart, prepared by highly respected beer expert Randy Mosher, contains a good deal of useful information about beer types as well as pairings.
Say you have pilsner and blonde ale in the fridge and you want to create a meal around them. Choose lighter foods, such as chicken, salads, salmon or bratwurst. For cheeses, select Monterey jack or a mild white cheddar. For dessert, a lemon custard tart will do fine.
Next weekend you’re planning a barbecue with some roasted, smoked meats and sausages. A perfect beer is porter, a dark brown ale whose aroma and flavor of roasted grains complement the rich meats, and whose maltiness balances the smoke and spice of the grilled foods.
India pale ale is a real treat with strong, spicy food, especially curry. Serve a bleu cheese such as gorgonzola, and end the affair with a ginger spice cake.
An abbey dubbel is a Belgian beer style that is brown, strong and features the characteristic sweetness and esters from specific yeasts. This beer is ideal for barbecued meats, meat stew, a thick steak, or a smoked rib roast. It’s also great with chocolate desserts.
Beer Advocate, the website that contains tens of thousands of beer reviews and rankings by users, has a great page for food pairings. Simply choose your style of food from a long drop menu and a selection of beer types will result (beeradvocate.com/beer/style_pairings/).
For Chinese food, choose a Czech pilsner, Euro strong lager, Japanese rice lager, or a light lager. For Italian food you have the option of American blonde ale, American pale lager, light lager, and maibock/helles bock. For Latin American cuisine the list of beers is long and includes amber or red lager, English porter and Irish dry stout.
Jack Kenny has been writing The Beer Column for The Beverage Journal since 1995. Write to him at email@example.com.