How to Pair Food and Beer

People often think of wine when they think of pairing a beverage with food. I’m here to tell you that not only is there another option, but that there’s a far better option. Beer.

Beer can be whatever you want it to be. Beer is all about choices. From water to hops to malt to yeast, the brewer has many choices to make. Then there’s the option to add additives or adjuncts. Do you want to dry hop the beer? Go for it. How about barrel-aging? Want to add some Lactobacillus or Pediococcus to sour the beer? Go ahead.

Beer offers options that put “red or white” to shame. In the most prestigious wine test that one can take, the Master Sommelier test, the tasting portion includes 3 red wines and 3 white wines.

There are 12 color descriptors used to describe beer. Straw, yellow, gold, amber, deep amber/light copper, copper, deep copper/light brown, brown, dark brown, very dark brown, black, and black opaque. And that doesn’t even include colors for any color contribution from the addition of fruit, etc.

The BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) currently lists TWENTY-THREE different categories for beer! And that doesn’t include the categories for cider and mead.

Amongst a group of other beer geeks, I literally was asked for my favorite beer style the other day, contemplated briefly, and declared it to probably be a Flanders Red right now. It was followed by a few chuckles, as people declared that that was such a specific choice. I could have just said “I’m really into sour beers right now.” But this love for beer makes me the geek that chooses the specific style of that complex acidic sour that boasts dark fruit flavors and is aged in oak barrels.

No disrespect to wine. Wines can be amazingly complex and beautiful. But wine just doesn’t have the versatility that beer has. Wine is really at its basic sense just grapes, and the yeast that naturally occurs on the grape skins. It can be aged on stainless steel or in barrels. Those are the choices.

The choices when it comes to beer and brewing are endless.

Often, people will tell me that they’ve been drinking light beers for a long time and that they want to branch out and try something new. And they’ll ask for a recommendation. It’s not the same for everyone.

I challenge wine to find my coffee-loving friends something that can compare better than an Irish stout can.

I challenge wine to find something that can please bacon-lovers better than a rauchbier can.

I challenge wine to pick me a suitable pairing for chicken noodle soup. Munich Helles is up for the challenge.

I challenge wine to find a better pairing for chocolate than a sweetened kriek fruit lambic.

There. I said it. All. And I feel much better now.

Now, let’s talk food and beer pairings.

Last year, my husband and I attended Savor, a large food and beer pairing event spanning two days. When you register, you have the option to sign up for one of several salons before they sell out. And they DO sell out quickly! (A salon is “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation”. Sounds like a geeky, fantastic time, right?)

We attended a pretty badass beer and donut pairing salon with Certified Cicerone, Dr. Bill Sysak. Dr. Bill is Stone Brewing’s resident “Craft Beer Ambassador”. (For those of you on Untappd, you may recognize his name from the “New Brew Thursday” badges, as he joined forces with those guys and came to create “Master Pairings”. Read more about that here. New Brew Thursday.)

The first thing he told the small group of us attending the salon was to remember that, “There are no rules.” I’m pretty sure he even told us to write it down. And I did.

He went on to explain why different foods work well with different beers. There truly are 3 basic concepts for pairing beer with food. But Dr. Bill’s point was that beer is unpretentious. Beer is fun. And if you understand the basic concepts, you really can’t go wrong.

Here’s a photo I got the chance to take with Dr. Bill after the salon. We chatted briefly about cellaring beer, and he was a great representative for everything craft beer is and should be: Approachable, down to Earth, and badass. Cheers, Dr. Bill!
Here’s a photo I got the chance to take with Dr. Bill after the salon. We chatted briefly about cellaring beer, and he was a great representative for everything craft beer is and should be: Approachable, down to Earth, and badass. Cheers, Dr. Bill!

When it comes to pairing beer with food, here are the 3 basic concepts:

Match Intensity

Find Complementary Flavors

Find Contrast

You should always match intensities. And you can choose to either find complementary flavors or find contrast, or even both. If you’re following those guidelines, you can’t really go wrong. Let’s break it down.

Matching Intensity is the idea that you don’t want either the beer or the food to dominate the other. Intensities should always be matched.

For instance, you wouldn’t want to pair a dense imperial stout with a light chicken salad with a citrus vinaigrette.

Keep in mind the beer’s malt profile, sweetness, body, hop bitterness levels, hop flavors and aromas, ABV, acidity, tartness, sourness, or other special processes that contribute flavor, like barrel aging of additions of fruit, spices, etc.

A good example of matching intensity would be to pair a lighter, citrus-forward pale ale with that salad.

Find Complementary Flavors. Complementing the malt profile of a beer is one of the easiest ways to accomplish this. You want to look for flavor similarities within the beer and the food. For example, the nutty flavors contributed by the malt in a brown ale go well with nutty cheeses like aged cheddars. A peppered steak would go well with a peppery saison. And the caramel and smoke flavors from a rauchbier would match seamlessly with BBQ pork with a caramelly BBQ sauce on it.

Find Contrast. I think this one is the most fun. There are two main ways to find contrast. One way is to use a beer’s attributes to refresh the palate while eating. Carbonation and/or high alcohol can do that by “cutting” through sweetness or fat. Roastiness can also do that. A moderately carbonated and roasty imperial stout can cut through a rich, sweet chocolate dessert.

My favorite example of this is pairing a big barleywine with a creamy, earthy blue cheese. The barleywine and blue cheese pairing works well because the high alcohol in the barleywine will cleanse the palate of the creamy fat from the cheese.

The second way to find contrast is to actually contrast the flavors. A bitter American IPA contrasts beautifully with a sweet, rich carrot cake. The equal intensities in the bitterness from the beer and the sweetness and light spiciness from the cake pair beautifully.

A sweet cherry cobbler will contrast well against a dry Irish stout.

Some things to keep in mind when pairing are cooking methods and sauces. A baked apple dumpling will pair differently with beer than a brie tart topped with fresh cut apples will. Rosemary baked chicken will pair differently than grilled chicken with a bourbon glaze will.

There are several things you want to avoid when pairing.

You don’t want to pair bitter, hoppy beers with oily fish like sardines, tuna, salmon, trout or anchovies. Pairing these together can result in harsh metallic flavors. You also don’t want to really cook with IPAs, as the bitterness is drawn out by the heat and will overwhelm everything in the dish.

Also, keep in mind that when pairing beer with spicy or hot foods that carbonation pushes capsaicin heat forward. A good pairing for these spicy foods would be a mild ale with its low carbonation levels and its good malt presence and light to medium body.

Here are a few of my favorite pairings!

Beef Stew and a Flanders Brown/Oud Bruin: A Flanders brown is a malty, fruity, moderately sour beer boasting dark fruit flavors, caramel and toffee. Pairing this with a beef stew shows complementary flavors from the carameley cooked beef. The dark fruits like plums, raisins and figs contrast the roasty umami of the rich beef stew. These are well-matched being equally intense and complex.

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream with an Imperial Stout: My favorite imperial stout is The Bruery’s Black Tuesday. This is a HUGE stout aged in bourbon barrels. It’s viscous, bold, chocolately and has some vanilla, bourbon and oak flavors from the barrel. A good quality vanilla bean ice cream complements the vanilla flavors in the beer and will pull them forward. The contrast of chocolate and vanilla is always a classic one. And the intensities are perfectly matched. Another great contrast is the warming of the almost 20% ABV and the creamy, cold bite of the ice cream. (Now I’m hungry. And thirsty…)

A Bacon Cheeseburger with Sharp Cheddar and an American Pale Ale: The moderate to high hop flavor cuts through (contrasts) the umami from the bacon and the fattiness from the bacon and the burger. The clean and present malt flavors present in a pale ale provide for a bit more of an approachable beer that matches the intensity of the burger well.

Gose and a Dense, Moist Watermelon Cake with Whipped Cream Cheese Frosting: This is a really fun one I want to use as a pairing example on the Certified Cicerone test. (A portion of the test involves pairing beer and food. And food and beer pairing menus and explanations have been known to be included as one of the long essay questions.) A gose is a light, refreshing sour ale brewed with salt and coriander. To me, a gose is like a far more refreshing beer version of a margarita. Salt and watermelon are a classic pairing and they contrast well. Contrast is also exemplified by the play on the sweet cake versus sour beer. They match intensities well, both being of a light-medium body. The cream cheese frosting cuts through (contrasts and clears the palate of) some of the acidity.

Many breweries work with local restaurants and chefs to prepare beer dinners. If you’re curious and want to experience how well beer pairs with food, I highly recommend seeking out a good beer dinner. Stay tuned for my next blog post on a recent beer dinner I attended here in NC!

And don’t be afraid to try out different things at home when you cook or when you go out to eat. There are beer geeks everywhere who love to share their love of beer with others. Ask questions. We’re friendly people. And beer is a friendly drink! Cheers!

3 thoughts on “How to Pair Food and Beer

  1. You are like a beer goddess
    I picked up some of those tips. Thanks
    I’m making my husband the chef read this 🙂


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