Beer has always been a popular choice to enjoy alongside a meal, yet we may tend to think of ‘food pairing’ as something that belongs to wine-drinkers. Pairing food and beverage seems to have a reputation for being a bit fancy, a bit tricky, and probably not something many of us worry about at home.
Today, we’re shaking off those old assumptions to see how easy it can be to pair beer with your dinner at home and get the best out of both.
Beer has the power to transform how you perceive your food, whether you’ve made an intricate gourmet dinner or you’re eating corn chips and cocktail wieners.
When we think of food and beverage pairings, we tend to think of wines and fine dining. Sauvignon blanc goes with… blue cheese? Merlot goes with wagyu, but only if it’s served with béarnaise sauce – if it’s served with mushroom sauce, it’s time to break out the shiraz. But only if it’s hot outside – if it’s winter, go for a Cabernet, but only if Mars is in retrograde. Or something like that.
Let’s face it, no one’s too interested in getting fancy right now. You’re at home, and probably spending a lot of time eating weird snacks, homestyle dishes with plenty of cheese, and misshapen loaves of homemade bread you’re eating mostly out of obligation and/or pride. (No? Just me?)
But here’s the thing: pairing food and beverage doesn’t have to be some inscrutable thing reserved for sommeliers and gourmets. Beverages can bring out new flavors in your food or make overly rich food more palatable – and beer is a great example of that.
That’s not a ‘fancy’ thing, or a ‘wine’ thing. Beer has the power to transform how you perceive your food, whether you’ve made an intricate gourmet dinner or you’re eating corn chips and cocktail wieners.
It might seem like it’s a lot of effort, but it’s actually really easy to pair beer with the meal you’ve made – arguably more so than wine, because different textures (or ‘mouth feel’) in beer tend to be more distinct than those in wine. Not to mention that wine has been shown to be significantly more harmful to the brain than beer.
So grab a plate of whatever homemade dish is on the menu tonight – you’re about to find out how easy it is to turn a good meal into a mind-blowing one with just the addition of some foamy beer goodness.
Describing beer texture
There’s no better place to start than simply thinking about the beer you enjoy most.
Think about why you like it. What are the textures like? There are a lot of words that connoisseurs use to describe beer, including silky, thin, and chewy. But describing beer doesn’t need to get technical (honestly, what does ‘chewy’ really mean?). All you need to do is pay attention to how the beer feels when you drink it, and use language you’re familiar with to describe it.
Is it creamy and smooth, or bright and bubbly? Is it warming or refreshing? Rich or acidic? If you’re having trouble identifying the texture, think about a more familiar food texture you can compare it to. Does it have a lingering, all-over mouthfeel, like cream? Or is the mouthfeel sharper, and disappears quickly – what we might call ‘clean’?
Give it some flavor
Taste profile is a big factor as well, and it can change a lot between taking your first sip and after the mouthful is gone. It can even change over the course of the drink. This is partly to do with texture, and highlights the complex relationship between flavor and texture when we taste beer.
A lot of the ways we commonly talk about food flavors can be transferred to describing beer – and just as with food, certain adjectives for flavors and textures tend to go together. For example, citrus flavors tend to be acidic, refreshing, and clean. Chocolate flavors tend to be warm, rich, and creamy.
That’s not a firm rule though, and can be influenced by a multitude of other factors – if you’re thirsty, you’re a lot more likely to find a beer ‘refreshing’ regardless of its flavor profile. On the other side of that coin, you might also subconsciously assume you perceive textures that remind you of the flavor you’re tasting.
If you want to dig in deeper and get more specific about what you’re tasting, there are flavor wheels available online to help you pinpoint the flavors in your beer.
That said, you’re not tasting it for anyone but yourself. While it’s good to be aware that certain external factors can change how you taste beer (for the sake of consistency, if nothing else), if you taste stone-fruit, it hardly matters if someone else tastes something different.
A beer for every occasion
Tasting your beer, but feeling a bit lost? Here are some common tasting notes for different types of beers:
Blonde ales; pilsners; amber lagers: Crisp; clean; bright; summer-y; higher carbonation.
IPA; pale ale; amber: Hoppy; bitter. Hops can present in a lot of different ways – sweet, sour, floral, bitter – so this type of beer tends to be more flexible when pairing with food.
American brown ale; Belgian dubbel; Scotch ale: Malty; sweet; toffee/caramel; toasted.
Stouts and porters: Rich; creamy; bourbon; sweet; vanilla/chocolate
Flanders ale; American sour: Tart; acidic; funky; sour.
Belgian blond ale; hefeweizen: Fruity; spicy; higher carbonation. Another versatile option.
So... how do I put them together with food?
Similar (or congruent) flavors are a good place to start – like goes well with like. Stir fry, which is fresh and light with fruity flavors from veggies like peppers, would tend to pair well with a similarly light beer – a blonde ale, for example. Similarly, a beef casserole – rich, warm, savory, salty – would tend to pair better with something darker: a stout, or a dark ale.
That said, meals often benefit from being paired with beers that complement flavors, rather than reinforce them. A very rich or fatty meal – something like chicken parmigiana (aka parmesan, parm, parma, or parmy – but we’re not here to get into that debate), which is quite cheesy and rich, might become overwhelming if paired with a rich or malty beer. Instead, a bitter, bright or fruity beer could help cut through the fatty, cheesy quality of the meal and add some depth.
Choosing similar flavors is probably the easier route – fruity goes with fruity, light goes with light, dark with dark, and so on. But complementary flavors actively add something to your meal – it can make the things you’re eating taste more complex and interesting. Something that seems pretty one note, like a chocolate mudcake, can be brought to life by pairing it with a fruity beer.
No wrong answers
Some do feel strongly that drinks have certain irrefutable tasting notes, and that you can get them wrong. I’m no beer expert, but I am pretty well acquainted with the ins and outs of tasting espresso – and I’m here to tell you I completely disagree.
Here are the things that matter most when you’re pairing food and beverage: does it taste good to you? Do they go well together? When you imagine yourself eating a meal, what kind of beer do you most feel like drinking? Will you want something that heightens the richness of the food, or cuts through it with acidity?
Pairing beer with your dinner (or dessert!) doesn’t require a great deal of know-how or a vocabulary of words that seem to make no sense in the context of drinks (again, chewy?!). Experiment with what you think tastes good, and be open to unusual results – it might uncover flavors in your food you never noticed before.
Have a question about beer training? We’re always ready to talk.