The idea of pairing beer with food is relatively new. Six years ago, a beer dinner in the Twin Cities was a rare event. Now you can't turn around without stumbling over one. Beer has taken a seat in the pantheon of pairing-worthy beverages, and the culinary industry has taken notice.
Beer and food pairing makes perfect sense. The flavors of each are not only simpatico, but they are the same. One of beer's primary ingredients is malted grain. And one step in the malting process is kilning, which produces chemical reactions such as caramelization and toasting that also occur in food cooking. Grain products are, of course, also used in baking, and beer displays many of the same flavors and aromas that make fresh, baked goods so irresistible. Hops, another important beer ingredient, provide citrusy, spicy and herbal flavors that are completely complementary to similar flavors in food.
It's not hard to create delicious combinations in beer/food pairings. Just keep a few basic concepts in mind.
Consider light and dark. In this context, light and dark is not about color. It refers to the flavor qualities of both the food and the beer. Light flavors are bright and refreshing, sometimes with a dash of acidity; something such as pan-fried pork chops with mango salsa or a leafy summer salad. Light foods call for crisp beers with that same fresh and fruity flavor. Wheat beers, kölsch, pilsner and hoppy pale ales all work. Dark-flavored foods display roast, toast, earth, herbs and umami character. Musty mushroom risotto is an example. With these foods, you should reach for stouts, porters and rich, caramel-enhanced bocks or amber bières de garde.
Match intensity. This is simple common sense. Light foods need light-bodied beers. Rich foods require something heavier. A full-bodied barleywine will overwhelm a flaky, poached whitefish. Pot roast in brown gravy will demolish a delicately tart Berliner weisse.
Look for complements and contrasts. Find flavors in the beer and food that are similar or that balance each other. The nutty malt flavor of American brown ale is a perfect match for the nutty taste of a crumbly, aged Gouda. The bready sweetness and effervescence of a German wheat beer offers a palate-cleansing counterpoint to a salty cured ham.
Hops intensify heat, malt calms it down. When pairing beer with spicy dishes, consider whether you want to fan the flames or keep them at a low simmer. Bitter and hoppy beers such as pilsner and pale ale will emphasize the spice. Malt-forward beers such as Scottish ale and Vienna lager will wrap it in a comforting, flame-retardant blanket. That said, there's nothing quite as good as a zesty India Pale Ale with spicy Indian curry.
Carbonation and hops cleanse the palate. Bubbles and bitterness in beer work similarly to acidity in wine, clearing away fat and oils in richer foods. If you are serving fatty meats or creamy sauces, think about palate-cleansing beers like saison, pale ale or dry Irish stouts.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.