Beer and food – how to pair like

“There is food in beer, but there is no beer in food. Beer is like liquid bread – it provides the same necessary nutrients. I say, just lay off the food.”
— Jim Koch, founder of Sam Adams Brewing

Pairing beer and food is an art form, not a set of rules. Thankfully, it’s really hard to truly mess up the multitude of combinations … one may overpower the other, or they may not compliment or contrast each other well, but rarely do the two clash. Therefore, crack open your favorite beer and snack, settle in, and treat this article as a guide, not as a manual.

Food in order of increasing intensity

  • Sushi, poached fish, fresh mozzarella cheese, pretzels
  • Sautéed white fish, chèvre, grilled vegetables
  • Roasted chicken, spinach salad, pizza, fried fish, Gouda or Gruyère cheese
  • Grilled pork chops, salmon, or portobello mushrooms; roast turkey; crab cakes
  • Hamburger, barbecued chicken, Schweinshaxe (ham hocks), kielbasa, authentic English Cheddar cheese, pâté
  • Fajitas, guylás, gumbo, soppressata, apple strudel, chocolate chip cookies, Münster cheese
  • Smoke-roasted prime rib, cheesecake, pecan pie, aged Gouda cheese
  • Grilled lamb, chevapchichi (uncased pork and beef sausage), blue cheese, carrot cake
  • Barbecued ribs, Texas mesquite-smoked brisket, Stilton cheese, chocolate mousse

From Randy Mosher’s excellent 2009 book “Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink”, from Workman Publishing.

There’s really only ONE “rule” for a killer combination of beer and food – match the intensity of flavor. After that, it’s all about what you’re trying to achieve with the pairing. If the food and brew aren’t of similar intensity, one will simply overpower another. Throw a spicy dish with a delicate kolsch or an imperial IPA with a mildly-prepared light fish and one of the flavors will be washed out.

Of course, the intensity of a beer isn’t a simple thing. Hop flavor can range from a bracingly bitter IPA to a barely-there Pilsner. Beer can be varying degrees of malty, rich, alcoholic, roasty, and a plethora of other flavors, any of which can render the flavor “intense” on its own or can combine to create that flavor potency that the food has to match.

The magnitude of flavor in food can be determined by its root ingredients, by the method of cooking, by the level of spicing, and a variety of other factors. Pale, flaky fish is typically quite bland, but roast it in an Indian tandoor oven with curry and chili peppers and you suddenly have a knock-you-over dish that should be paired with an equally powerful brew like an imperial anything, a nice roasty stout, a sweet/malty Scottish ale, or a hop-loaded IPA.

A second “rule” would be to try to go one of two ways: find flavor harmonies that balance each other or go the other direction and contrast for emphasis. Sweet dishes can be paired with caramel flavors found in many beer styles to create a candy store in your mouth, but a nice sharp IPA can really enhance the rich sweetness of a cheesecake. Spicy heat in food can be enhanced by hoppy brews for those inclined to face mouth-searing chile heat, but a rich, sweet milk stout or a malty Oktoberfest can soothe the dragon on your tongue and enable you to soldier through an otherwise overwhelming dish.

Use this simple list as a guide:

  • Hop bitterness, roasted malt, alcohol, and carbonation balance fat, sweetness, and umami
  • Sweetness and maltiness balance spicy heat and acidity
  • Hop bitterness emphasizes spicy heat

The above list hints at one of the biggest advantages beer has as a pairing partner over wine (yeah, we just threw down the gauntlet): carbonation, the great flavor scrubber of the gods. We can even find a use for generic American lagers – pair them with rich foods as a way to balance the slick mouthfeel that comes from too much fat. They’ll cut right through the fat like a hot samurai sword through butter.

Other tips

A simple way to make sure you have a winning combo is to match regional beers with regional cuisines. A German bock is a fantastic addition to a wienerschnitzel, IPAs can be used to cut through the thickness of English fish and chips or bangers and mashed, but can also be used to emphasize the fiery heat of a spicy Indian vindaloo. Rich French cheese can be simultaneously thinned and emphasized with a French farmhouse saison. Look, these beers were developed over centuries … if they didn’t go well with the local food, they weren’t brewed.

If you’re going to get crazy with a multi-course beer and food tasting, one “rule” worth following is to go from mild to intense, both in the food and the beer. Starting a tasting with an imperial stout is a great way to make sure you get very little out of the pilsner that follows. Take it easy on the little guys and let them go first, otherwise your palate won’t get much from he more delicate brews.

Of course, an old adage applies to beer as much as it does to life: practice makes perfect. Keep experimenting! Have a couple of different styles of beer that might work with a flavor on hand when dining and try them all to see how they work with the dish. Don’t be afraid to try out-of-the-box pairings: there is no box when it comes to beer and food.

Wrapping it up

Considering the interaction of your food and beer is the key. For consistent pairing greatness, one must pay attention to the effect one has on the other … flavors transform each other. A complex dish has dozens of flavors, a complex beer can have nearly that many. The interaction of the two can create a beautiful tapestry of aromas and flavors, one that creates an experience greater than the sum of the parts.

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