How to craft the perfect beer pairing
Beer is taking its rightful place alongside wine at the dinner table, as the craft beer movement explodes across the country. However, with more than 3,000 microbreweries serving more than 100 styles of ale, finding the perfect brew for a meal can be a daunting task.1
Pairing beer and food doesn’t have to be overwhelming. There are tricks to finding a mouth-watering food-and-suds combo, as well as some tried-and-true matches. Besides, experimenting is half the fun, and it’s hard to go wrong with craft beer. The first step is to taste beer, and that means paying attention the methods of a professional beer taster or trained Cicerone (an expert in serving and pairing beer).
How Does it Taste?
If you’re used to swilling down a pint without thought to the beer’s bouquet or flavor, don’t despair. All you have to do is use your senses. Pause and consider the following five aspects of the beer.
Much of what people think of as taste is actually perceived through the nose. Before taking a sip, swirl the beer around and take a deep whiff. Note the scent of fruit, herbs, ginger, hops, malt, and other added aromatics.
Take a drink and let it rest in the mouth. Swish it around. What does the beer feel like? Pay attention to temperature, carbonation, creaminess, body, astringency, and burning, numbing, or cooling sensations.
What is the basic taste sensation of the beer on the tongue: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or umami (savoury)? Sometimes, it’s easier to tell after swallowing.
What flavours are present in the beer? Does it have chocolate, vanilla, or caramel undertones? Is it smoky, fruity, citrusy, or peppery?
Look at the colour of the beer. Typically the darker a beer the more intense the flavour. Assess the overall strength of the brew. Is it delicate or strong, light or heavy?2
How to Find a Perfect Pair
Once you assess the characteristics of different beers, it’s easier to match them with food. Start by combining brews with familiar dishes, then experiment. The following five tactics can help beginners discover delicious pairings.
A dish and beer should generally match each other in strength, so neither the drink nor food overpowers the other. For instance, a salad pairs better with a light lager or pale ale than a heavy stout. A beef stew pairs better with a rich porter than a pilsner. When pairing a multi-course meal, start with lighter, lower-alcoholic beers and progress toward heavier ones to avoid overwhelming the palate.3
Balance Taste Elements
Assess how the beer’s taste – the sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or umami sensations on the tongue – balances or enhances a dish. Remember the guidelines chefs use to season dishes:
- Sour balances sweet
- Sweet balances spicy
- Salty enhances sweet
- Bitter balances sweet and umami and enhances spicy.4
Pair a beer and meal with contrasting, balancing, and calming elements for a winning match.
Researchers believe the reason certain food combinations are popular – for instance, coffee and cream or oil and vinegar – comes down to mouthfeel.5 Astringent foods such as coffee and vinegar are drying and rough in the mouth, so oily foods balance them with a slippery feeling.6 Beer isn’t astringent, but bitterness causes a similar feeling in the mouth. Thus, hoppy IPAs or sour beers pair well with heavy, oily dishes. Carbonation also cuts through rich foods and cleanses the palate.7
Bridge Flavours or Aromas
To make a pairing pop, look for similar flavours and aromas in the dish and beer. For example, try pairing:
- Juniper-, spruce-, or pine-flavoured brews with rosemary-flavoured dishes
- Brews with cinnamon or ginger undertones with spicy curries
- Citrus flavoured ales with lemon- or orange-flavoured dishes
- Roasted porters and stouts with grilled or caramelized meats
- Caramel-, vanilla-, or chocolate-flavoured beers with desserts8
Planning a Beer Pairing Menu
By paying attention to the unique qualities of beers and using these tricks to match them with food, you’re sure to find some combinations that please a group. Hosting a beer pairing dinner party is an excellent way to experiment and test your skills.
Stumped on what to serve? Try some of these tried and true combinations.
More Tips for Beer Pairing Dinners
Establish a theme to help narrow down food and beer choices. For example, select brews and dishes that are in season or from a certain region. Or, select beers from a specific brewery.
There really isn’t one perfect beer for each dish, since all gastronomic pleasures vary by personal preference. Don’t be afraid to offer two beers with a single course: one with contrasting flavours and one with complimentary flavours. The different beers will bring out different aspects of the food and appeal to individual tastes.
Pour between four and seven ounces of beer for each guest per course.
Guide guests through the different pairings to enrich the experience.
Print a menu, and pay attention to lighting, background music, and other details to create a more elegant gathering.
Consult one of these helpful resources:
- The Brewmaster’s Table by Garrett Oliver
- Beerology by Mirella Amato
- The Oxford Companion to Beer by Garrett Oliver
- Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher
Once you plan a couple of pairing menus, you’re sure to find your own favourite combinations. With more craft breweries opening every day, the options are bottomless.
— ABBY QUILLEN, FIX.com