You sit down to a great meal and decide to dispense with the wine and try a good beer with your food. But, what beer? There are so many choices that choosing an appropriate brew can be a daunting task. Sifting through the flavors inherent to your chosen entrée and matching them with beer is not for the faint of heart. But, given a few basics, you will soon be able to impress your friends with your food and beer pairing prowess.
With the current economic situation, wine is starting to take a back seat at beer on many tables at fine restaurants. Beer is a more affordable choice and, according to many chefs, actually pairs better with food than wine. Consider that wine has only two ingredients for the wine maker to manipulate into a great beverage. Beer, on the other hand, has a minimum of four – malted barley or another grain, hops, yeast, and water. But, many brewers use many more ingredients to coax amazing flavors from their brews. Ingredients like spices, fruits, nuts, and even oysters. All of this means that a beer can be very closely matched to a specific type of food to reveal even more amazing flavors than would be apparent with the beer or food alone.
All of this is not to say that there is anything wrong with wine. On the contrary a nice chardonnay with a well-prepared white fish in cream sauce can be heavenly. And there is nothing better than a big cabernet sauvignon with a caveman-size hunk of steak. Wine will always have its place on the table of fine dining restaurants – it will just have to share that space with craft beers.
Before we dive into suggested pairings, let’s take a moment to think about the characteristics of the different types of beer. Paring foods to beverages go beyond mere flavors. You have to consider properties such as carbonation, body, and serving temperature as well. There are far too many beer styles to fully explore all of them here so we will stick to the main styles and perhaps a few of the more popular derivative styles.
Beer can be broken up into two main categories: ales and lagers. Ales tend to have robust and fruity characteristics while lagers – the dominant type of beer made by the mass-producers – tend to be crisp and comparatively light or delicate. When considering the body of a beer there are really on three categories: light, medium, and heavy. Generally speaking you can pair a light dish like fish with a lighter-bodied beer and heavy dishes like beef stew with a heavier beer like a smoked porter.
So, first let’s examine the characteristics of the different styles of ales:
Most Belgian ales are golden to deep amber in color and have a light to medium body. There is generally very little hops flavor and they can be slightly acidic.
These brews may be slightly cloudy with a golden color. Since spices and other ingredients are often used, they may have a fruity or herbal aroma and flavor. Saisons are normally light to medium bodied with very high carbonation.
These ales tend to range from reddish-brown to dark brown in color and carry a medium to full body. Flavors may include nuts, caramel, and roasted coffee beans or chocolate.
Pale ales display color profiles ranging from golden to copper and boast a spicy, hoppy flavor. They are also noted as a very dry beer.
India Pale Ale
Intensely hoppy in flavor, IPA’s present with colors similar to that of a pale ale. These bitter beers also feature a malty backbone that usually balances the hoppiness.
Wheat beers come in a wide variety of styles and flavors. Characteristics that are found in many of the wheat beer styles include colors ranging from golden to light amber and lower carbonation. Wheat beers are also known for their fruity aroma often reminiscent of banana or vanilla.
Dark brown to nearly black in color, porters are hopped and very malt forward in flavor. Mouth feel on porters is squarely medium.
Black and medium bodied, stouts are generally very dry and have a pronounced coffee flavor.
Now let’s look at lagers:
Bocks are deep copper to dark brown in color and carry toasted malt flavors with very light or non-existent hops. This style is medium to full-bodied.
Similar in color to bocks, dopplebocks are very full-bodied and have a pronounced alcohol flavor.
German pilsners tend to range from light straw to golden in color and present a highly-hopped, dry flavor. American lagers are generally medium-hopped but present a sweeter flavor due to the addition of corn.
Malty and sweet, these lagers range from amber to deep copper or orange in color. They usually have a high toasty malt characteristic and low to medium hop bitterness.
So, now that we have a baseline understanding of the profiles of several beer styles, we can move forward with matching them to foods.
In America, we have some very distinct ideas as to what our favorite foods are. Our favorite home-cooked meal, for instance, is fried chicken. But, our favorite restaurant food is pizza. And our favorite dessert is ice cream. For this article I decided to cover a cross-section of both our favorite home-style meals and our favorite restaurant dishes. It is worth noting before we go on that you should take care to serve beers at the proper temperature to truly enjoy them with your food at their best (see previous article, “Ice-Cold is Too Cold with Beer”).
The favorite food of Americans is an import from Italy. Whether round or square, cut into wedges or squares, deep-dish or thin and crispy we eat a lot of this cheesy, tomato sauce laced, greasy delight. What beer fits best with your favorite pie? Pilsners are your best bet. The hops stand up to the cheese and tomato sauce while the high carbonation cleanses the palate and readies it for the next delicious bite.
Throw a chicken or some ribs on the grill and the whole neighborhood will be salivating and drifting zombie-like toward your back yard. The smoky flavors and sweet, caramelized sauces of barbecue pair remarkably well with the smoky flavors of porters. For an extra special treat, try mixing a little porter into the barbecue sauce and brush it on a few minutes before it meat finishes cooking.
Spicy foods like buffalo wings need a beer that has a flavor that won’t get lost in the onslaught of hot peppers. A highly-hopped IPA is a perfect fit for these fiery bits of fried and sauced heaven.
Surprisingly, this Japanese staple is an American favorite food as well. Because sushi is often about the delicate flavors of the fish and rice, a beer with a lighter body and flavor is needed. Wheat beers fit the bill here because many have a light flavor with delicate notes of fruits that complement the sweetness of fish without overpowering it.
We are a country of meat-lovers. Whether the steak is broiled, pan-seared, or thrown on the grill, we like our beef and we are not about to give it up. The roasted malt flavors of a good brown ale go perfectly with the hearty, meaty goodness of what’s for dinner.
Another quintessential American food is hamburgers. Pair a greasy cheeseburger with beer and you could find yourself in culinary Nirvana. Pale ales are the order of day when chomping on that burger dripping with melted cheese.
We have a fascination with this frozen delight. Perhaps it stems from our childhood and those hot, hazy summer days of chasing down the musical ice cream truck for a vanilla cone that was soon dripping down our arms. No matter what the reason, we love our ice cream here in America. And, believe it or not, there is a beer to match with it. Your best choice for ice cream is a cream stout. The rich, smoothness of ice cream pairs very well with the coffee or chocolate tinged sweet nuances of these stouts.
Beer in its many styles and flavors is a welcome addition to nearly any dish at any meal. You merely have to think about the flavors of the food and how you wish to experience them with a beer.
Until next time.
Long Live the Brewers!