Beer & Food: Pairings and Combinations

The pairing of wine and food may be more of a well-known and long-standing practice in the dining industry, but American craft beer, after successfully carving out its own niche with drinkers, has also made the leap into the world of the respected gourmand. Gone are the days when it was acceptable to pop into a friend's dinner party with a simple pack of lite beer! Instead, show off your brew-to-food knowledge by remembering a few easy-to-understand rules that will ensure every swig of delicious beer will match perfectly with whatever dish is being served.

Being that color is a clear and distinguishable trait among beer styles, we can break down most pairings into a general rule of thumb: The lighter tasting the food, the lighter the beer - The darker the food, the darker the beer. The terms “light” and “dark” are subjective when talking about specific flavors, but light would be something crisp, refreshing and fruity; while dark would refer to something with a roasted, rich, savory sensation. Though not always the case, this is a fairly simple jumping off point.

Porters and stouts, with their dark brown color, are known for being the richest beers one can usually find. With strongly roasted dark malts brewed into its backbone, these warm winter drafts are packed with flavors of coffee, dark fruit, and even chocolate. Though some may find them overwhelming on their own, the flavor becomes more complete when matched with caramelized meats (duck, steak, BBQ) and roasted vegetables. The beer is able to cut through the fat of the food and provide a balance of richness and sweetness, which is why these styles can also work with chocolate or even some fruity desserts.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we find the golden and clear beers, which includes pilsners, lagers, golden and blonde ales, and wheat ales. While these beers can have small flavor variances, they are all recognized as being crisp and lightly fruity with a balanced match between hoppy and sweet. Because of this lighter nature, they are best matched with fresh vegetables and salads, grain dishes and chicken, cream-based fish dishes and light meat, like burgers.

The most popular craft beer style in America, the IPA (India Pale Ale), is widely known for its distinct hoppy flavor, but beyond that, the color, strength, and secondary flavors may change based on the brewer. This is due to the many different strains of “hop”, the flowering cones that give beer its flavor, scent, and lasting properties. For the most part, IPAs pair well with spicy and bold foods that emphasize hop character: curry, sausage, and Mexican food. IPAs are one style that, rather than aiming for balance, aim to emphasize strong flavors when paired with food.

Similar to IPAs, Sour beers usually have a specific fruit or flavor addition depending on the brewer, but the vast majority will have a decidedly salty, yeasty or “funky” flavor. Pairing with food can be a bit more difficult because of this flavor profile; the salinity of the beer needs to be matched by the food. Cured meats and strong cheese can be a good fit, as well as mussels, egg dishes, and other highly acidic foods.

Much as any drinker will have their own favorite style of beer, personal taste will have a bearing on what works best when matching beer and food. However, knowing some of these simple pairing notes means that your next dinner party can be that much more enjoyable, as you pop open a cold one that best suits your meal!

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