Beer is incredibly diverse, and the pairing possibilities go far beyond a burger and fries. For the longest time, beer was more of an afterthought when it came to thinking about food pairings, but the craft beer boom has pushed its way into restaurant menus everywhere. Now, blondes, hoppy IPAs, and porters all have a place at the table.
The Essentials of Pairing
Grasping a few basics about specific flavors, aromas, and textures will help you to understand what beer compliments what food, and vice versa. Think about these less as rules and more as guidelines that allow you to be creative and use your intuition when choosing that perfect match.
Considering Flavors & Textures
From witbier to Abbey Dubbel, beers fall all across the board when it comes to sweet, tart, bitter, salty, malty, rich, spiced, dry, crisp, and sour flavors. It's important to think about how all of these components interact with similar flavors in food to know if your pairing will be mind-blowingly good or not quite right. Making a good match can often mean pairing like with like; say a pale ale with an equally light chicken salad. The flavors can complement each other without one overpowering the other.
Alternatively, another approach is to pair contrasting flavors, like a saline oyster on the half shell with a robust and bitter stout. Sweet pairs well with sweet, but can also match nicely with salty, acidic, and fruity flavors, while the bitterness from a heavily hopped beer is great to cut through fried and fatty foods. One combination that should be avoided is a bitter beer with a bitter dish. In this combination, the flavors play off of each other in an unpleasant way.
Beer As a Palate Cleanser
Another approach when thinking about beer and food is to choose a beer that works well to refresh your palate over the course of the meal. The carbonation alone in beer brightens the palate, similar to bubbles in wine. Light beers, such as pilsners, witbier, and sours, can bring interest to a multi-faceted meal, while keeping your palate ready for the next bite.
Beer Pairing Based on Style
Looking for more direction than your intuition? The following will set you up for success. Whether you are looking to work with what you already have in your fridge or are planning to make an event of the evening, you'll find numerous foods that will match well with all types of beer.
Light lagers, such as a Czech Pilsner or German pilsner, are pale golden and are a balance of crisp acidity and bitter notes with a refreshing finish. Something equally light and fresh is a great match for light Lager, such as spring rolls loaded with crunchy carrot, ginger, garlic, and cilantro. Tuna carpaccio with a pile of arugula and fresh herbs on top is a great pairing, as well. You can also easily lean into a dish with a little bit of heat with a Lager, such as a cold, spiced Thai noodle salad.
A mellow wheat beer is super versatile when it comes to pairings. Its light, sweet, and nutty profile (often with a hint or two of citrus) has a smooth texture that works with grilled seafood or summer picnic food, such as chicken salad and potato salad. Citrus salads are a great match, as well.
These tart and fruit-forward beers often have quite a bit of brett, giving them funky personalities that can play differently depending on what you enjoy them with. A cheese plate that combines the piquant flavors of a strong blue cheese along with fresh, ripe berries is a delight alongside a lambic.
India Pale Ales (IPAs)
Indian pale ales can vary greatly in bitterness, depending on which varieties and what quantities of hops are used. Typically, they have a medium amber color with prominent citrus and herbal notes. The bitterness here works well with fried foods, such as salty fried chicken. Similarly, IPAs also make a great match for spicy foods, such as tacos or curries, as they have the ability to round out the heat.
Ambers are medium-bodied, red-hued beers with a richer, malted profile that finishes dry. The caramel notes mimic characteristics found in a high-quality, aged English cheddar. The two together make a pretty dreamy mouthful. Ambers also pair well with barbeque, burgers, or smoky ribs with some heat.
Dark Lagers, such as Bock or Munich Dunkels, typically have a toasty sweetness to them. Matching them with foods from their birthplace, Germany, is a good bet to balance the body and flavors of the hefty beer. Sausage, potato dumplings, and big pretzels all hit the spot when paired with a dark lager.
Brown Ales are malty little numbers with layers of caramel and chocolate. These carry much more weight than a Pilsner and therefore are best paired with heavier foods. Mimicking the nuttiness in food also works well with brown ales. Think chicken satay, roast beef, or peanut chicken. Lean into the malty flavors in food as opposed to the spicy ones.
Porters are what you want if you are looking to take a Brown Ale one step further. They have similar roasted notes but are heavier and typically have more bitterness at the finish. Smoky bacon and young, creamy cheeses bring out all the rich toffee flavors in the beer.
The rich profile of a stout has prevalent notes of chocolate and coffee that pair well with heavy barbecued meats and grilled vegetables, such as smoky eggplant. They also pair well with particularly salty foods, making a briny oyster on the half shell a surprisingly pleasing match.
Beer in Hand
Ready for a drink yet? Grab your favorite beer and tune in to your inner sommelier to match the hoppy, malty, salty, fruity, bitter, and toasted notes in your glass to your meal for an unforgettable gastronomic experience.