There was a time when ordering a beer with dinner was as simple as, “Give me a light beer.”
Those were dark times. Dark times, indeed.
But with the skyrocketing popularity of craft beers, restaurateurs and customers alike are recognizing the versatility of pairing beer with food. Diners opting for a beer pairing in lieu of wine are increasing due to the complex flavors that beer brings out of food.
That’s not to say pairing wine with your food is a bad idea – far from it. But craft brewers are mad scientists when it comes to selecting the right ingredients to suit just about any kind of food. As a result, the right craft beer can bring out flavors in food that wine never could.
Get Started Pairing Beer with Food
Pairing beer with food goes beyond red or white. Believe it or not, but craft beer varieties range from 75 to somewhere in the 90s. We’re actually not quite sure.
If you’re just starting out, there are some parallels between craft beer and wine that you can begin with. In a way, beer hops are similar to wine acids. Comparatively speaking, a bitter IPA is like a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chianti; both pair very well with fatty, oily foods, and even salty flavors.
Consider these your training wheels; they’ll get you moving, then you take them off as you get comfortable with branching out:
Wines: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Barbera, Pinot Grigio
Beers: Lager, Pilsner, Wheat
Wines: Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah
Beers: Ale, IPA, Bock
Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, oaked Chardonnay
Beers: Stout, Porter, Barleywine
The first step when pairing beer to food is to match strength with strength. From the crisp and delicate lagers, to fruity and earthy ales, to the stouts that put hair on your chest, pair your beers to your food accordingly. A bitter dry ale complements fish very well, while an assertive porter or stout is ideal for rich stews, roasted meats or smoked foods, like BBQ ribs.
Temperature and Balance
For some reason, beer companies like to promote how cold their beer is. Well, there’s a reason why that beer tastes terrible when it’s warm.
Brewers, on the other hand, actually recommend drinking some of their beers room temperature, or just slightly chilled. Sound familiar? (hint, hint; WINE)
If you’re sipping a Belgian Ale, for instance, you’ll notice that as the beer gets closer to room temp, the more flavorful it becomes. Ideally, craft beer is best served between 40° and 50°F. Too warm, and you run the risk of it tasting (and feeling) like syrup. Experiment with different beers at different levels of cold to find something you like.
If you used to pair different courses of your meal with different wines, follow the same principles when pairing beer. Start with a light beer and work your way toward the darker beers. Going in reverse can overwhelm your taste buds and result in you losing some of the more subtle flavors of your lighter selections.
Consider the Season
One cool thing about craft beer is that it’s seasonal, just like fruits and vegetables! As the food on our plate changes throughout the year, so does the beer in our glass. As refreshing as a Pale Ale or Hefeweizen was in the heat of the summer, meals made with fall harvests beg for Ambers, Stouts, and Bocks.
And yes, there are plenty of pumpkin options in the fall. It’s hard to pass up a cinnamon and sugar-rimmed glass of Pumking to pair with a rich piece of cheesecake.
When the winds turn cold and the snow starts to fall, nothing warms you up like pairing a hearty Barleywine or spiced Holiday Brew with some comfort food.
Finally…There are No Wrong Answers
Seriously. Nobody is going to fault you for ordering an aperitif with dessert. When it comes to pairing beer, there are no wrong answers because, quite frankly, there are so many to choose from.
If you’re a hophead, then the dankest IPA is going to taste good with just about anything you eat. Are you happiest when your beer is so dark that light can’t escape it? Then a milk stout is probably the perfect complement from fish to steak to a plate full of steamed veggies.
So get tasting. Try things you never thought you’d enjoy. Pair something new with your favorite meal and take note of the different flavor profiles. Come up with your own combinations and have fun doing it. In the end, that’s all that really matters.