For centuries, if you asked a restaurant server in any mid-range to upscale American eatery what drink to pair with a certain dish, he’d bring over the sommelier and a wine bottle negotiation would ensue. But in the last five years, there’s been a paradigm shift: Beer has made it onto the menu as more than an afterthought. Beverage directors, chefs, and even wine lovers have learned that beer has an amazing capacity to pair with all kinds of foods. As a result, beer sommeliers have popped up in cities across the country, especially Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Portland, Oregon. Beer-and-food tasting events have multiplied exponentially—the monthly lists at beerfestivals.org are enormous. Nowadays, asking for a beer no longer means you’re simply afraid of wine (or the type of person who wears face paint to football games).
Beer may actually be more food-friendly than wine is. There is certainly more room for flavor variety. Winemakers, after all, have one ingredient to play with: grapes. Two, if you count wood barrel–aging. Beermakers, on the other hand, can experiment with barley (which adds sweetness), hops (which provide bitterness), yeast (which lend that characteristic “bready” flavor), as well as spices, nuts, chocolate, fruits, and vegetables. You have tried framboise (raspberry) and pumpkin beer, right? Even the world’s greatest experimental chef, elBulli’s Ferran Adrià, believes in beer’s flavor-matching prowess: He recently released Estrella Damm Inedit (made with barley, malt, wheat, hops, coriander, orange peel, licorice, yeast, and water), specifically created to be food-friendly.
food and beer pairing issues:
- Complementary or contrasting flavors?
Some chefs and sommeliers attempt to find commonalities, pairing, say, a spicy Thai dish with a spicy pale ale (could also be a fruit-fruit or chocolate-chocolate synchronization, etc.). The idea is that there is a pleasant echo. Notes in one sip evoke flavors in past or future bites. The opposite approach suggests thatcontrasting flavors are pleasing in a ying-yang sort of way: A dry, bitter stout classically pairs with oysters, perhaps “cutting through” the sweetness of the shellfish. Sweet and salty always work wonders. Remember that dominant food flavors can come from the protein (like beef), the sauce (such as a cream sauce), or the method of preparation (grilling, for example).
- Comparing beer to wine
Some people say lager is like white wine andale is like red. A corollary of that concept: that beer hops (as in a nice bitter IPA) function like wine acids (found in, say, a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chianti) in food pairings. Both cut through fattiness and oiliness, and even saltiness. Imagine them both as providing the lemon in, or acid counterpoint to, a fish dish. These are oversimplifications, but there are a few fundamental differences between lager and ale (the two main types of beer) worth contemplating: Ales tend to be fruity and robust, while lagers are crisp and comparatively delicate. In terms of body, there are three types of beer (like wine): light, medium, and heavy. Generally you can pair light dishes with light beer and heavy dishes with heavy beer.
Wines: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Barbera, Pinot Grigio
Beers: Lager, Pilsner, Wheat
Wines: Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah
Beers: Ale, IPA, Bock
Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Oaky Chardonnay
Beers: Stout, Porter, Barleywine
- Texture, temperature, and timing
Bubbles cut through fried and fatty foods, so opt for more carbonization when eating richer foods. Pizza, for example, is a greasy match made in heaven and requires something that will stand up to the acids in the tomato and cut through the fatty cheese but not overwhelm the dish. Stouts and porters are too heavy. Wheat beers might be a little light or fruity. Ales, pilsners, and lagers are your best bet: Hops stand up to the cheese, while bubbles cleanse the palate. Note that beer can taste syrupy if it’s too warm. It’s best served between 40°F and 50°F. (Note: some fridges get even colder than 40°F, so you might consider leaving a beer out for 15 minutes before serving.). Finally, timing really is everything. If you’re pairing a whole meal with different beers, course by course, dish by dish, make sure to start with a light beer and work your way toward darker beers. If you don’t, you may overwhelm your palate early on and miss some of the subtler notes and aromas of delicate beers.
- Beware of simply matching the region
Many people think if you’re having Mexican food, it’s a safe bet that a Mexican beer will pair well. The truth is: Most restaurants offer only a small selection of beers and mostly because that’s what people are used to seeing on a menu. Mexican Tecate, Thai Singha, Indian Kingfisher, and Chinese Tsingtao are all great European pilsner-style beers, but they’re not universal pairing solutions for all dishes from their respective countries. (Some of these brands are actually brewed in the U.S. or Canada anyway.) Beer experts advocatestronger and fruitier flavors when dining on spicy fare: ales, Hefeweizens, and wheat beers in particular. No matter what type of beer you choose, the coldness will feel good against hot food.
- Drink what you like
If you love pale ale, you’ll probably like it with anything you eat. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. Experiment: There are no wrong answers.