A Guide To Beer and Food Pairings

The aroma of a roast wafting from a nearby kitchen can take your thoughts back to your Grandma’s kitchen. Perhaps you’ve got a favourite sweet that always makes you think of your best friend from school. Flavour and memory are intricately linked and that’s why it’s so important to get right. At a time of year when we get together with friends and family to eat, drink and celebrate together, I want to share some tools with you to make any meal more memorable with well-matched beers.

The unquestionable king of beer and food matching is Brooklyn Brewery’s very own Garrett Oliver. In his book The Brewmaster’s Table, he introduces the subject poetically: “If you love food, but you only know wine, then you’re trying to write a symphony using only half the notes and half the orchestra.”

The sheer variety of beer, with a spectrum from crisp pilsners to the full-bodied intensity of imperial stouts, is what makes it so uniquely suited to pairing with every conceivable meal. That said, the number of options can be overwhelming, so a few rules can come in handy – but never forget, rules are made to be broken.

Introducing the three C’s

  1. Complement
    When you have similar flavours in both the beer and the food, you’ll get a complementary pairing. A classic example is the sweet yet toasted flavours of a piece of seared steak with the roasty malts of a stout.
  2. Contrast
    Exactly what you think it would be – you take two opposing flavours and put them together, resulting in always interesting and often pleasant flavour sensations. A simple way to try this out is to get a gooey, rich chocolate brownie and pair it with a sharp and sour fruit beer like a classic Belgian Kriek.
  3. Clear
    There’s more than one element of beer that makes it an excellent palate cleanser, the carbonation, alcohol and bitterness all come together to cut through cloying flavours and fats that coat your mouth, leaving your taste buds free to enjoy the next morsel. A really good Pilsner cuts through the fat of a prosciutto and draws out the saltiness, allowing you to enjoy the other flavours fully.

And that’s all there is to it – think about the flavour combinations you enjoy and then think of beers that will enhance them with one or more of the three Cs. If you want to start taking things further, start thinking more about the subtleties of the beer and how you can bridge those flavours to the food. The resinous and herbal aromas of American hops are reminiscent of rosemary which you could roast with potatoes, or a Belgian dark ale has fruity esters and a dark caramel character which would pick up the same in bacon wrapped dates.

I would say the most important thing to keep in mind when choosing the perfect beer to go with a meal, is that there are no wrong answers – sometimes a pairing that works on paper fails to impress when you try it. If you make bold choices, you’ll quickly learn what works and hopefully have a few pleasant surprises.

Here are some ideas to get you started

  1. Beer Style: Pilsner
    Example: Tempest Easy Living Pils
    Classic pairing: A ham and cheese sandwich
    Adventurous Choice: Caviar
    Why it works: A perfectly dry pilsner is one of the few drinks delicate enough to drink with caviar. It also works with caviar’s frequent partner smoked salmon, a far more wallet-friendly treat than the traditional pairing of champagne and much tastier too!
  2. Beer Style: Saison
    Example: Them Apples by Austmann Bryggeri & Redchurch
    Classic pairing: Pork & Apple sausages
    Adventurous Choice: Seared beef tacos with lime and coriander
    Why it works: In all honesty, I sometimes find saisons a bit hard work with so much going on in their complex and funky flavours – but paired with food they are a revelation. The earthy flavours, sharp bitterness, tart and dry finish – there’s always going to be something interesting going on with all but the most delicately flavoured dishes.
  3. Beer Style: Porter
    Example: Island Records Jamaica Porter
    Classic pairing: Oysters
    Adventurous Choice: Mole Poblano
    Why it works: The classic pairing here shows contrast at work – the sweetness of the porter creating a foil for the salty taste of the sea you get from the oysters, and this particular porter goes the extra mile for flavour, with coconut bringing smoothness and the vanilla an exotic lift. If you like salted caramel, this is the one for you to try.

What about beer and cheese

Blessed are the cheese-makers and as far as I’m concerned there is no greater combination than beer with cheese. Wine and cheese is fine, but it’s so easy to get it wrong and ruin your cheese, your wine or to kill the flavours of both dead in your mouth with a poor selection. On the other hand, the milk-sweetness of the cheese and the maltiness of beer, make it hard to get a pairing wrong and the absolute right choice can be sublime.

Barley wines are made to go with rich, strong flavoured British cheeses – try Five Points Old Greg’s Barley Wine with a ripe stilton – the higher strength and sweetness working together with the sharper flavours of the blue cheese for a velvety combo.

Matching a tangy cheddar with a dry-hopped, West Coast IPA can seem like a surprising choice but the almost citrus sharpness of the cheddar is brought out by the fruity hop character and the cheese can work to counter some of the bitterness in the beer.

With brie there are two equally fulfilling routes you can go down – a strong golden ale clears the palate nicely and the yeast character plays nicely with any stronger flavours. But the sweet creaminess that comes with ripeness can really come into its own with a dark lager – try Eyeball Brewing’s Eyeball Black, East Lothian’s answer to the classic Munich Dunkel.

Want to know more

I’m Flavourly’s beer buyer and I’m also a qualified beer sommelier, which involved learning far too much about all this stuff. If you’re ever looking for an idea for the perfect beer to complement a special meal or a recipe to try with one of the beers in your discovery box, just get in touch with Flavourly through the usual channels and I’ll be happy to help.

Originally published in Issue 10 of Flavourly magazine. Written by Anna Aitken.

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