Beer Pairing 101

In my recent article about beer dinners, I touched on the importance of pairing beer and food appropriately. This topic struck a chord with some readers, who asked for more information about how pairing works and the effect it can have on your overall experience.

At its core, beer pairing is about combining two of life’s great pleasures: craft beer and high-quality food. Almost every beer fan drinks with some of their meals already—why not put some thought into how the food and drink work together?

As cooks or observant eaters, we can be delighted by the way even one minor component changes a dish. Add sriracha to mayo, dried fruit to an elegant cheese, avocado and a squeeze of lime to grilled shrimp: when a new flavor collides with a familiar bite, the experience can be remarkably transformative.

Take the complexity up a level and things get even better. Adding layers of flavor can be like a single voice exploding into multi-part harmony—surprising, rich, with unexpected dimension, nuance, or clarity. Beer is a great source for those extra layers, emphasizing key elements of the paired food or countering them in a productive way.

But where do you start? Between the vast and varied world of cuisine and the increasingly intimidating ritual of beer tasting, it can all seem like too much to tackle. Well, that overwhelming feeling actually brings up the most important thing about beer pairing.

Don’t get intimidated

There’s no template for beer pairing, and what works for others might not work for you. Above all, aim to enjoy the food you eat and the beer you drink with it. I won’t go so far as to say that “if you like it, it’s right,” but if you like it, it can at least be right for you.

When you start thinking about beer pairing, begin with the primary flavors and elements of the beer and food, what some call “the language of food.” Identify one half of the equation and break it down along these lines:

Look for commonalities between beer and the food you might pair it with (sweet beer with sweet food), or consider setting up a productive opposition (refreshing beer with fatty food). Letting your imagination go, you might consider the season (a light spring blonde with a fresh spring salad); additives (oyster stout with oysters); or a common locale (a British-style beer with a traditional British dish, like ESB with bangers and mash). In your early days of beer pairing, look for a single element that leaps out from the beer and pair it with a matching dish: the one time I really enjoy pumpkin beers is when they’re paired with homemade Thai curry with butternut squash.

Suggested pairings for some major beer styles

Entire books are devoted to the specifics of beer pairing, but it can be helpful to see even a few specific examples for some common styles. Note that while I consider these pairings to be relatively conventional, pairing is an inexact science, and others might disagree.

Room for debate

To make an example, I deliberately left US craft beer’s most popular style, the American IPA, out of the previous list. While everyone has an opinion on pairings –informed or otherwise – the IPA is perhaps the best case for diverse perspectives on pairing. Thoughts here are divided into two main camps, which correspond nicely to the two main philosophies I alluded to earlier:

Counter: Arguably the more popular option for IPAs, this philosophy uses the moderate-to-high bitterness of the style to make fatty or creamy dishes like burgers, fried chicken, or grilled cheese much more palatable.

Emphasize: When you pair an IPA with spicy foods, particularly chili-based cuisines like Thai or Mexican, a bit of culinary alchemy takes place on your taste buds: the right piney or herbal hop can send the spice level skyrocketing while washing the burn right off your tongue. Find the right match here and you’ll discover previously unimagined nuances in both beer and food.

What to do when you’re in doubt

If you’re just getting started, attending a party with a variety of foods, or simply don’t feel like thinking all that much about pairing, a few go-to options can bail you out  at the beer store.

One such option is what I’ll call “wine-like” beers: saisons, tripels, bieres de garde, beers that use grape must or otherwise emulate some aspect of wine. These beers tend to be relatively sweet, moderate to high in alcohol, and dry enough to keep your palate fresh. As such, they clash with very few foods and are great for sipping through multiple courses.

Another  option is to look for well-balanced beers, styles that build on a strong malt foundation without overreaching in any particular direction. Look for American amber ales, marzen (Oktoberfest) lagers, or English pale ales, which tend to be less hoppy than their American counterparts and are often marketed by US brands as “summer ales.” If you’re a hophead looking to exercise some restraint, try a slightly hop-forward rendition of a moderate style, like Bell’s Amber Ale.

Difficult pairings

People say that plenty of foods just don’t pair with beer—but they’re wrong. While it might be more difficult to find the right beer for some dishes, the incredible diversity of modern beer production means that no food need go unpaired. A classic example of a difficult beer pairing – one that wine aficionados are especially fond of pointing out – is pasta.

Wine has historically owned this space, so what’s a beer drinker to do? At a basic level, some balanced, malt-forward styles can work well if the pasta is truly the focus of the dish. Cacio e pepe with homemade noodles goes quite well with a low-shilling Scottish ale. For more complex dishes, one way to crack the pairing riddle is to start with the cheese. For example, wheat beers will pair with a light, refreshing mozzarella, while a big rich mac and cheese might be able to handle a bock. Your other entry point is the sauce: pair a pesto with a strong golden ale, a light primavera with a Kolsch, or a Bolognese with a malt-forward altbier or spicy-hopped Belgian pale.

Beer pairing is similar to other complex aspects of the craft brewing world, like tasting evaluations or homebrewing: you can look at the vastness of the space as something to fear or as an opportunity for exploration. While this article covers just a few small corners, it will hopefully give you the motivation to begin drawing your own map. I encourage everyone to put just a little thought into their pairings, as the benefits are well worthwhile.

As you go, have fun, experiment on your own and with friends, and share your thoughts with me and the rest of the Sommbeer community.

Julian Cantella

2 thoughts on “Beer Pairing 101”

  1. Julian,
    This is an article with enough substance and challenges to my currently held opinions that I will need to read it again tomorrow.
    Sriracha sauce and mayo, avocado and lime juice – these combinations really highlight what food pairings and additions can do to completely change a dish. My food awakening occurred just last year on a trip to an Indy brewery (Daredevil Brewing). I had both a Rauchbier and an IPA that I was enjoying, when I ordered their “cold plate” for lunch. Cheese, dried fruit, jelly, cold cuts were enjoyed with the beer for a food experience I did not expect. The flavors were so overwhelming that frankly I didn’t even need to eat that much (says something about bland fast food eaten in “super sizes”).

    My current beer debate is precisely what you mentioned – IPAs. Are they best with heavy foods like pizza or best paired with something on the lighter side? I will keep experimenting.
    – David

    1. David,
      Thanks for the comment! Glad to hear that you’ll be experimenting –that’s the fun part! Personally, I look for strong flavors of some kind to pair with IPAs. In particular, many American IPAs are so hoppy and aromatic that they can really obliterate foods with subtler flavors. Curious to hear what ends up working for you.

Leave a Reply