“There is good living, where there is good beer.”
Since I started writing about beer, this has been my mantra—and, of course, good food is part of good living, too.
There’s more synergy between the beer and food worlds than ever before. Brewers have produced a range of delicious beers to suit nearly every kind of food. The Brewers Association reports that the number of breweries in the U.S. just passed 5,000—a record high. That means there’s a ton of beer-and-food-pairing potential! Therefore, it’s no surprise that restaurateurs are increasingly recognizing the versatility of craft beers—and their various complex favors—when it comes to food pairing.
“Dr.” Bill Sysak is respected around the world for his encyclopedic knowledge of beer styles and flavor profiles. Dr. Bill, as he’s known in the craft-beer community, is the co-founder and CEO at Wild Barrel Brewing Company and the former craft beer ambassador at Stone Brewing Co. He suggests matching strength with strength: Strong-flavored foods demand assertive beers. And for crying out loud, taste things first!
“I’ve always been a proponent whenever possible of knowing the flavor profiles of both the beer and the food, personally, versus just reading about it,” says Dr. Bill.
Grains like wild rice or polenta pair well with clean and crisp Bohemian-style pilsners or American amber lagers. The complementary grain flavors balance hops while staying light on the palate.
Love sour and funky beers? Try them with rich meats and root vegetables. Combining these flavors brings out umami.
While filet mignon is classically paired with pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon, a rich stout has the potential of bringing out flavors that one won’t taste with wine. Brown ales are also bold enough to complement roasted meat.
That said … breaking the rules is totally OK—and even encouraged! Discover what works together on your palate.
Wes Lieberher, the executive chef at Beer Belly in Los Angeles, is a rule-breaker, as well as a food and beer lover. You must try his beer-braised octopus. He’s putting his own twist on what’s popular; for example, he created a French dip with duck and duck au jus. When it comes to pairing, he tends to experiment with what’s available.
“I leave it open,” Lieberher says. “We switch our taps so much, so there’s always a different beer, so there could always be a slightly different flavor to it, which is kinda cool.”
As for breaking rules: He pairs his beer-battered fish and chips, a lighter dish, with a hoppier IPA, rather than the lighter pilsner used in the dish.
“A lot of people will say, ‘This goes with this,’” Lieberher says. “I won’t cook with an IPA, but IPAs will go great with something I’m using a lighter beer with.”
More and more, brewers, restaurateurs and chefs are using what’s available to them locally. This tends to lead to better natural pairings.
“I was one of the first major people at my level—beer-and-food pairers—to talk about regionality,” says Dr. Bill. “Back when water was bad for you, people had to have whatever (alcohol was available in the) area of the world they lived. … In the Grape Belt, they drank wine with their meals, or diluted wine for their children. In the Grain Belt, everybody drank beer or mead or cider.
“If you had to eat the same kind of food sources every day, and the only beverage you had to wash it down with made you say ‘yuck’ every time, those styles wouldn’t survive, right? You would find the styles that work well.”
Julia Herz wrote the book on beer pairing. No, really: She co-authored Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide From the Pairing Pros with Gwen Conley. Herz is the Craft Beer Program director at the Brewers Association and a certified cicerone.
“The localization movement isn’t just isolated to food,” she says. “That’s where we became aware of it—from the slow-food movement, farm to table—and now it’s farm to keg to tap! We’ve got brewers thinking like chefs.”
While beer has reclaimed its place at the dinner table in some places, many restaurants still put only wine in the spotlight. Herz believes it’s time that more of the 115,000 people in the U.S. craft-brewing community speak up with a simple request: “Dear restaurateurs: It’s time to have your menu present beer in the same manner as food and wine.”
Herz suggests trusting the waiter or beer-server if you’re at a restaurant that has a respectable-looking beer menu
“Go to establishments that hang their hat on pairings. Have them be your guide,” she says. “If they have wine pairings, it’s a good place to push them and ask them about beer pairings.”
But to repeat: The one definitive source for what beer works well with what food is your own palate. Experiment and embrace your inner anarchist.
“We all aren’t the same tasting type, and we’re not all going to perceive what we taste as the same,” Herz says. “So it’s all about the journey—experimenting and being able to articulate to yourself or to others what you did and didn’t like.”
Thankfully, people are taking her advice. As of March 2016, nearly half of craft-beer drinkers surveyed said they drink craft with food more now than they did a couple of years ago.
Make no mistake: Beer is king and should have a place at the dinner table. When combined, the sales of wine ($37.5 billion) and spirits ($69 billion estimated) in the United States barely surpass the sales of beer ($101.5 billion—$19.6 billion from small and independent U.S. craft brewers). This tells us there is unmistakable potential.
Cheers, and bon appétit!