One of the skills I had to acquire before becoming a certified cicerone (the beer equivalent of a sommelier, more or less) was pairing beer with food. In other words, the IPA I was ordering with my hamburger was research! Works for me.
You may be familiar with the idea of wine dinners, but you might not know that when it comes to pairing foods with beverages, beer wipes the floor with wine. Yeah, I included that sentence to provoke a reaction with wine-lovers. The thing is … it happens to be true!
Just think about how beer is made for a moment: The grains are prepared in various ways (malting, kilning and/or roasting), then steeped in the mashing process (much like hot cereal); the sugars are then boiled, with ingredients added at any number of points during the end of the boil and fermentation.
With wine? There are grapes. Maybe some will be blended together. Ergo beer > wine.
I know I’m short-changing wine here, but I bristle at the assumed superiority of wine to beer. Wine struggles where beer breezes in and amazes. Spicy foods, desserts, complex or simple entrées, among all cultures and preparations—beer has it covered, usually from multiple angles. Do you think wine and cheese is dreamy? Beer and cheese will wake you up and make you praise the day. The Belgians have known this for a long time, and has Cuisine à la Biere, which uses the country’s delicious beers in the preparation of dishes such as mussels sautéed in a tripel or gueuze, or carbonnade flamande, a beef and onion stew using Flanders red ale instead of water or broth.
Yes, you, too, can pair beer and food. There are a few principles to keep in mind when planning an individual pairing or a multi-course beer dinner:
Match intensities: This is a fairly simple idea: If you have a pairing in which either the beer or the food overwhelms, you might as well have had water rather than beer with your food. When a meal has numerous courses, this is even more important. If you can raise the intensity of the pairings along the way, you can leave your dinner guests blissfully sated. Keep in mind the beer’s strength, as well as how hoppy, roasty, smoky, bitter, etc., it is, and then arrange the dinner courses accordingly.
Complement, contrast and combine: These are the three ways you can approach a pairing. Finding a beer that resembles or includes ingredients contained within the food should be obvious—a citrusy, herbal American pale ale with tacos, for example, or a toasty, nutty English Brown ale with a sharp cheddar. (You will think you’re having a grilled cheese sandwich!)
Contrast is another way of approaching a pairing. This is a little more difficult, but a simple way of doing it is using a beer’s carbonation and bitterness to “cut” through the food and refresh the palate when necessary. Contrasting flavors can also be done in so many ways that it would be impossible for me to convey even the basics without boring you to death. This is where playing around with pairings is very fun and educational. Good examples of this are pairing a fruited lambic (Belgian sour ale) with a chocolate cake, where the sour, fruity and spritzy beer contrasts with the rich and sweet flavors of the cake. A roasty, creamy stout like Guinness with oysters is a classic pairing. I’ve had much success combining hoppy beers with chocolates as well (although one could say that eating chocolate and drinking beer simultaneously is a success in and of itself, regardless of how they pair up).
Finally, combining flavors in beer and food to leave the impression of something else altogether can be a great way to conduct whole beer dinners. Themes are another good idea: You can use a single beer style with different courses, or pair beers with a particular cuisine, or develop any kind of theme that unites both.
Pitfalls: I’ve mentioned some “home run” combinations, but there are also potential duds. For example, hoppy beers make oily fish (sardines, anchovies, etc.) taste harshly metallic. Gross. Hops and alcohol accentuate capsaicin in spicy foods. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re a spice junkie like me. Malt-ier beers will soothe that heat, alternately.
I’ve paired food from the highly talented Jeshua Garza of Kuma Catering with then-head brewer Chris Anderson’s beers at Coachella Valley Brewing for some private dinners. Here is the menu from one of my favorites.
Amuse bouche: Crab arancini with shaved parmesan, paired with Oasis Apple Ale, an American wheat ale with fresh-pressed McIntosh apples. The carbonation in the beer cuts through the fried rice ball and lifts it off the palate, while the slightly tart apple notes contrast the savory crab and cheese.
First Course: Citrus-cured salmon puntarelle, anchovy dressing, radish, lemon aioli, grapefruit and breadcrumbs, paired with Desert Swarm, a Belgian-style honey double witbier with kumquats and coriander. Again, carbonation helps clear the palate for the next bite, while the citrus in the beer and in the food complement each other. The banana yeast esters and coriander in the beer add an extra dimension.
Second course: Sous vide herb chicken, curried sun-choke puree, crispy Brussels sprouts and orange almond pistou, paired with Big Cat Tart Farmhouse Style Ale, containing desert sage, rosemary and grains of paradise. This was the highlight of the dinner: Tartness meets tartness, and citrus in the food plays well off of the curried puree and Brussels sprouts. Then the herbs and spices in the beer cling to the tender chicken perfectly.
Third course: Lamb leg, smoked yogurt, chili baby turnips, roasted persimmons and pork jus, paired with Dubbel Date, a Belgian dubbel with dates. This is a great example of both types of contrast mentioned previously. Belgian beers are typically highly carbonated and dry, and contain fruity, sweet (but not cloying) flavors. This helps the savory, smoky, roasty, fatty goodness of the lamb slide on down and adds sweetness to get you reaching for that next bite.
Fourth course: Caramelized pear tart, toasted coriander ice cream, mint and meyer lemon syrup, paired with Super Swarm on Brett, a variation of a stronger version of Desert Swarm aged in whiskey barrels with pomegranate molasses. This has complement (sweetness, breadiness, citrus and coriander), contrast (a higher alcohol by volume and carbonation against buttery, sweet flavors) and combination (it tasted like having Froot Loops cereal with some banana added alongside a nip of bourbon), all in one dish. I was lucky that this beer was on tap for this dinner, as only a limited amount was produced.
I hope this whets your appetite. If in doubt … just go for it, and see what happens. If you find some interesting, delicious and/or unexpected pairings, please send them my way and share them so that we may all enjoy them.
One last thing: Make sure you don’t take this too seriously. One of the best things about beer is its accessibility. We don’t need the level of snobbery that some wine enthusiasts can manage anywhere near the greatest and oldest alcoholic beverage in the world—beer. Cheers!
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.