Pairing beer and food

With breweries and beer choices multiplying like yeast cells in wort (beer before yeast transforms the sugary water into BEER), people are giving real thought to how to best pair beer with food.

When the only brews available were choices of light lagers, pairing beer with food was simple – either beer worked with the food or it didn’t. Those light beers do pair well with some foods because their crisp, refreshing, palate-cleansing nature washes away fats in, say, pizza or a burger, but their ideal food partners were limited.

Now that we have a vast array of beer styles and a dizzying number of beers to chose from, we’ve reached the point where beer will pair well with any food, if the drinker follows some simple guidelines. To be clear, these are guidelines, not rules. If you like the way a beer X goes with food Y, keep eating and drinking them together.

The most important guideline is fairly simple – match the intensity of flavors. If the food and brew aren’t of similar intensity, one will simply overpower another. Throw a spicy dish with a delicate kolsch or an imperial IPA with a mildly-prepared light fish and one of the flavors will be washed out.

So a regular burger will pair well with the standard American light lager, or perhaps a lighter-flavored local offering such as a Berkley Golden Ale or Mayflower Golden Ale.

If you add sharp cheddar or some mild barbecue sauce to said burger, you’d be better off choosing a beer with a bit more kick, such as a Buzzards Bay Golden Flounder or a Sam Adams Boston Lager. As the flavor of the food becomes more intense, match that with the beer.

Kick that burger up another notch with jalapenos, spicy pickles, chipotle spread, or other similarly strong flavors, and you’d be better off with a more intense brew like an IPA (many local choices), an Allagash White or other Belgian-style brew, or just about anything from Pretty Things or Clown Shoes.

A second “rule” would be to try to go one of two ways: find flavor harmonies that balance each other or go the other direction and contrast for emphasis. Harmonizing the flavors (sweet with sweet, sharp with sharp, etc.) will compliment the flavors in both the brew and the dish, whereas going in the opposite direction can really emphasize the original flavor profile.

For example, sweet dishes can be paired with caramel flavors found in many beer styles (like a Goodfellows Wheneverfest, or a Harpoon Raspberry UFO) to create a candy store in your mouth, but a nice sharp IPA can really enhance the rich sweetness of a cheesecake.

Going the other direction, spicy heat in food can be enhanced by hoppy brews for those inclined to face mouth-searing chile heat, while a malty Oktoberfest can soothe the dragon on your tongue and enable you to soldier through an otherwise overwhelming dish.

Use this simple list as a guide:

  • Hop bitterness, roasted malt, alcohol, and carbonation balance fat, sweetness, and umami
  • Sweetness and maltiness balance spicy heat and acidity
  • Hop bitterness emphasizes spicy heat

The above list hints at one of the biggest advantages beer has as a pairing partner over wine (yeah, we just threw down the gauntlet): carbonation, the great flavor scrubber of the gods. We can even find a use for generic American lagers – pair them with rich foods as a way to balance the slick mouthfeel that comes from too much fat. They’ll cut right through the fat like a hot samurai sword through butter.

Considering the interaction of your food and beer is the key. For consistent pairing greatness, one must pay attention to the effect one has on the other … flavors transform each other. A complex dish has dozens of flavors, a complex beer can have nearly that many. The interaction of the two can create a beautiful tapestry of aromas and flavors, one that creates an experience greater than the sum of the parts.

Originally published on May 19, 2013