As I was getting more serious about my craft beer studies, one area that I found intimidating was the topic of food pairing. I understood the very basic concept of some beers going better with some foods, but that was about the extent of it for me.
First of all, the whole idea seemed really pretentious. To me, food pairing was something of the wine world and of fancy restaurants where tuxedoed servers silently mock your choices.... Or at least I was always sure that's what they were doing when I ordered.
Second, the pressure of making the best pairing from the nearly infinite beer and food combinations seemed daunting. How could you possibly know what every food and beer combination tastes like to be able to make a recommendation? It turns out that you can't, and that's okay. That's why I'm going to give you some basic tenets to follow as you embark on your journey of beer and food togetherness.
FIRST, THE BEER
There are a few simple factors you need to consider about the beer you are attempting to pair. Assuming that the beer you are faced with is a good representation of its style, you should be able to answer any questions you have with the style guidelines we talked about from the BJCP in this post. In no particular order, they are alcohol strength, malt character/sweetness and hop character (including bitterness, flavor and aroma). Here's what they all do to food.
#1 Alcohol- Alcohol is an important determinant for the "size" of a beer. As a general rule, more alcoholic beers should be paired with more flavorful foods.
#2 Malt Character/Sweetness- The malted barley used to get fermentable sugars into the wort during the brewing process was "cooked" by a maltster before it got to the brewer. The way different malts are produced lends different flavors to the finished beer. Since both the malts and the food were "cooked", we see a lot of similar flavors. Toasty, caramelly, nutty, and roasty are a few of the many possible malt flavor descriptors that are also found in food. Match them up to enhance both.
#3 Hop Character- Hops provide bitterness to the beer as well as flavor and aroma. First, let's talk about bitterness. One of the main contributions of a bitter beer to food is the enhancement of spice character. If your food is a little spicy and you want an extra kick, go for something with some hop bitterness. If your food is plenty spicy enough, though, pairing it with a bitter beer could lead to "el overkill picante". Bitterness is also an interesting player against acid in foods; often these combinations can create entirely new flavors not found in either of the items by themselves. Now, let's talk about the other contributions from hops: flavor and aroma. First of all, this is different from bitterness. Hop flavor and aroma can range from earthy and mildly spicy to hugely citric or resinous. Very bitter beers don't necessarily have to have a whole lot of hop flavor and aroma and very hop forward beers don't necessarily have to be very bitter. We often describe hop flavors and aromas with the same vocabulary we use to describe fruits, flowers and herbs. Use those descriptors as your inspiration.
NEXT, THE FOOD
Food, of course, is the reference book we tend to go back to when we look for flavor descriptors in beer because they can all be found there. Though there are infinite options for food flavors, there are a few key ones you need to consider when thinking about pairing with a beer. For this we will revisit the basic tastes drawing from elementary school (yes, I know it's not that accurate) and add a couple of edits.
#1 Sweet- Sweetness is something you can either choose to amplify by pairing with a sweet beer or minimize by pairing with something more bitter.
#2 & #3 Salty & Sour- Salty and sour can often cancel each other out. For example, a salty meal seems less so with a tart or sour beer.
#4 Bitter- Bitter foods are given balance by adding a sour/tart beer.
#5 Umami/Fatty/Creamy- Fattiness and very savory flavors can be taken down a notch with a very carbonated beer or one with some assertive bitterness.
#6 Spicy- Like I mentioned above, spiciness is enhanced by bitterness in a beer. Some bitterness brings out some interesting spiciness. Too much bitterness in a very spicy dish can make it inedible.
SO WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
If the descriptions above made you even more nervous than you were before, don't be. Here's all you need to know to get started with successful food pairing.
#1 Be Aware of Intensity- A beer with a lot of intensity in any of the areas we talked about above will drown out less flavorful foods. Likewise, a very weak beer in those areas won't stand up to really strongly flavored foods.
#2 Create Resonance- Resonance is a popular buzz word to describe when two things (in this case a food and a beer) share qualities. Think about rich, chocolatey, dark malt character and actual chocolate. Lots of similarities there... resonance of flavors.
#3. Create Contrast- Sometimes very intense foods and/or beers will need to be taken down a notch to be enjoyed more thoroughly. For example, you can use a highly carbonated beer to scrub the palate after a fatty food.
#4. Practice and Repeat- If you wanted to play the violin well, you know you would have to practice often. The pairing of beer and food work the same way. Be more thoughtful of what you eat and drink to find combinations that are exciting to you.
#5. Don't be pretentious. Don't limit yourself or others in finding what's enjoyable. If someone really loves a 14% barleywine with their summer greens salad, don't thumb your nose at them. And if you really want to have a Belgian Strong Golden with your Venison burger, don't hold yourself back because someone else might think it's weird.
IF YOU NEED SOME INSPIRATION, TRY OUT THESE COMBINATIONS
Salad with romaine, baby arugula, toasted walnuts and fresh orange slices- Pair it with a Belgian Witbier (Blanche de Bruxelles) Why it works? Belgian wits are typically low in alcohol and quite carbonated. The citrus character of the beer will complement the orange slices while the spiciness of the coriander in the beer will make the arugula more interesting. The refreshing tartness of the wheat will balance out some of the bitterness that romaine can have.
BBQ Ribs with a St. Louis style tomato-based barbecue sauce- Pair it with a Robust Porter (Founders Porter) Why it works? The dark malts in the beer will resonate with the char on the ribs from the grill. The sweetness of the barbecue sauce will blend with the chocolatey character of the beer, while the assertive bitterness of the robust porter will help cut through the fat of the ribs.
Rocky Road Ice Cream with a traditional English ESB (Morland's Old Speckled Hen) Why it works? Though not a traditional pairing, the caramelly malt character of the Old Speckled Hen works really well with the milk chocolate and marshmallow flavors of the rocky road. Likewise, the English yeast strain's contributions of butteriness and fruit play off the nuts in the ice cream. The creamy mouthfeel of the nitrogen pressurized can blends perfectly with the melty ice cream at the bottom of the bowl.
HAVE A FAVORITE PAIRING YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE? POST IT IN THE COMMENTS SECTION
Again, practice makes perfect. With all of the flavor combinations out there we can all be amazed every day if we keep trying new things. Some will not work nearly as well as others, but that's all part of the fun.
If you'd like to learn more about the many flavors of beer, join us for a BREW-ed Brewery & History Walking Tour of downtown Asheville.