There are no hard and fast rules and precious few authoritative references on the subject of pairing beer with food. This is beginning to change. As craft beer matures, some structure is emerging. Wild experimentation is turning up solid revelations about the unique interactions of beer with food. Chefs and cicerones (the term for beer sommeliers) are publishing books to guide laymen and experts alike through this still uncharted territory.
The basic principles of creating great beer/food pairings are much the same as those for wine. Match intensity first; lighter dishes with lighter beers and more substantial fare with stronger, fuller-bodied brews.
Next, look for complements and contrasts. If you taste something particular in your food, look for a beer that displays that flavor as well. For example, the peppery bitterness of arugula in a salad is a great match to the spicy hops and bitter bite of a German pilsner.
Or play different flavors against one another by having pairings that contrast; it will enhance the perception of each. Take stout with raspberries. The rich, chocolate and coffee roast of the beer provides a counterweight to the sweet/tart acidity of the fruit. Your senses swing back and forth from one flavor to the other, which makes you more sharply aware of each.
Looking beyond the basics, there are specific interactions of beer with food that are quite different from those of wine. Understanding these can help you create better pairings. For instance, one of the textbook rules for sommeliers is to avoid putting acidic wines with acidic foods. The two acids amplify one another and create an unpleasantly tart experience. With beer, the opposite is true — acid tames acid. A bright, tart Berliner weisse is brilliant with a vinaigrette salad or ceviche. Sour Flemish red ales make magic with pickled herring.
When pairing beer with spicy foods, remember that hop bitterness and alcohol increase the heat while malty sweetness tones it down. Salty foods enhance the sweet caramel and toasty taste of malt-forward beers such as Scottish ale, but they tone down the roast of a porter. Bitterness in beer calms similar bitterness in food and cuts through mouth-coating fats and oils.
While it’s fun to sample your way through a trial-and-error discovery of these beer/food interactions, you can also turn to one of the guides that are starting to show up on bookshelves.
A good one to start with is “Beer, Food, and Flavor: A Guide to Tasting, Pairing, and the Culture of Craft Beer,” by Schuyler Schultz (Skyhorse Publishing). He is a chef, sommelier and craft beer enthusiast who has worked everywhere from small-town bistros to Las Vegas resort hotels. In this volume he offers a comprehensive primer on pairing fine food with craft beer.
The book begins with a tutorial on tasting beer, including an extensive vocabulary of descriptors for the flavors derived from malt, hops and yeast. Schuyler explains how using detailed beer descriptions can help identify “areas of focus,” core flavor elements in foods and beers that serve as the basis for great pairings.
After describing some basic approaches to pairing, Schuyler illustrates their use with menus from actual beer dinners. For each multicourse meal, he provides descriptions of the menu items and beers along with notes detailing the thought process that brought him to the pairing.
The lengthy section on pairing beer and cheese is especially impressive. Schuyler starts with the basics of cheese — how the size of the curd affects the flavor and texture of the final product, for example. He then provides descriptions of basic cheese types — hard, semi-firm, soft-ripened, blue and washed-rind. For each, he offers suggestions on the beer styles that are best suited to them, along with explanations of why the pairings work.
The range of flavors in beer makes it exceptionally compatible with food. A perfect pairing creates magic in your mouth. With just a few guideposts to lead the way, you can set off on a most enjoyable tasting trip to get you there.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.