June 6, 2013

Do you like this?

An introduction to pairing beer with food

I’m going to go ahead and say what so many of us are already thinking. Beer pairs better with food than wine. I know that will seem blasphemous to my oenophilist friends, but hear me out before asking for my head as part on a charcuterie platter. Beer has a broader range of styles, flavors, components and finishes that can complement as well as contrast nearly any kind of food. It can be argued that craft beers are more complex than wine and provide more layers of flavor to work with when paired with food. If that seems hard to imagine, try asking a sommelier what wine would best be served with a platter of tamales, spicy Szechwan noodles, or a pulled pork sandwich. Now try to think of any food that can’t be matched with some type of beer—I couldn’t think of one either.

It is true, however, that you can’t pair just any beer with any food. There are some basic principles you should keep in mind when pairing that meal’s comestibles with one or more beers.

Birds of a feather: Beers and foods of similar intensities will complement each other. A light, delicate dish would typically work better with lighter foods. A blond ale, for example, could be paired with chicken, salmon, light, nutty cheeses, or even lemon custard.  However, there are times when you want contrast, say by pairing a hoppy, slightly bitter pale ale with a rich, cream sauce or a light lager to offset the heat of a spicy dish.

More than just the meat: There are more flavors on the table than just the meat. Think about the other ingredients, dishes, and accompaniments that will be a part of the meal when picking out the meal’s beer.

Plan the guest list in your mouth:  When you plan a party, you want a good mix of people so the interactions between them will add to the character of the soiree. The same principle applies to pairing beer with foods—you want the flavors to interact in interesting ways to keep your taste buds from getting bored. That can take the form of contrasting or complementary pairings—maybe even both in the same meal!

For example, a clean, crisp beer will contrast beautifully against grilled or seared foods, but a smooth, brown ale would complement such a dish.  

Food and beer interaction takes place between the bitter, sweet, rich, spice, and carbonation elements within the pairing. Fatty foods, either sweet or savory, can be matched with hoppy bitterness, fruity sweetness, roasted malt or even carbonation, which is particularly effective at cutting richness.  For example, the hoppiness and malty sweetness of an India Pale Ale classically pairs well with strong, spicy foods such as Indian or Thai curries or roasted, barbecued meats.

One final warning: With the popularity of spicy foods and higher alcohol content beers, it should be noted that alcohol is a solvent to capsaicin, the heat component in spicy foods. Drinking alcohol, even an ice-cold beer, can actually make the burn worse by spreading it throughout your mouth and throat. Sweeter, maltier beers with a low ABV are a better choice when eating that plate of Volcano Hot Wings or Cousin Ernest’s Butt Burn Chili.

— Mike McJunkin


June 6, 2013

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