To the uninitiated, pairing beer with food can seem like a daunting proposition: after all, this is no “red wine with red sauce, white wine with white sauce” scenario. There are 100 or so different styles of beer, with infinite subtle variations on flavor, aroma, color, alcohol content and carbonation possible within those defined styles.
However, even though beer pairing can require a little extra background knowledge to create the perfect match, it can also be more rewarding and revelatory than pairing wine with food. Also, beer can perfectly match many foods that are considered “blind spots” for wine, such as spicy food and intensely vegetal or earthy foods like asparagus and mushrooms. (Really!)
If you’re still skeptical, look at some of beer’s strengths over other beverages that make it a champ for food pairings. First and perhaps foremost is carbonation: those bubbles that tickle your tongue and tingle your soul are also helpful when you’re eating. They lift oils and fats from your tongue, cleansing and resetting the palate to help maximize your enjoyment of rich and fatty foods.
This effect can be seen when pairing beer with cheese and chocolate, foods that coat the tongue and actually dull the flavors of wine (despite wine’s reputation with said foods). In contrast, beer’s scrubbing bubbles can amplify and enhance the flavors of these foods, while the right beer will create an experience that is even greater than the sum of its parts: try a nut brown ale with aged cheddar or an imperial stout with double chocolate brownies to find out for yourself how this works.
Secondly, beer has true and sometimes profound bitterness from the addition of hops, which help balance out sweetness and cut through richness in food: wine has no such helpful trait. This bitterness makes extra-hoppy India pale ales (IPAs) terrific matches for both bleu cheese and carrot cake. And as an added bonus, different hop varieties exhibit a staggering amount of different flavors and aromas, giving the intrepid taster yet another tool to help create resonance or contrast in beer and food pairings.
Finally, beer has an almost limitless range of flavors and aromas, many of which can’t be replicated in wine, including chocolate, caramel and coffee from malted barley; tropical, floral, citrus and onion hop flavors and aromas; hints of banana, lemon, clove and cinnamon from the use of different yeast strains; and even a mineral or slightly salty character derived from the brewing water.
This wide range of flavors allows you to precisely tailor your beer choice to the flavors in your food, complementing and contrasting flavors in ways not possible with other beverages.
So how does one go about utilizing beer’s natural tools to create a perfect match with food? Keep your eyes peeled for the next article in this series on the basics of pairing beer with food: it’s easier than you might think, once you learn a few ground rules to keep in mind.
Until then, try drinking some different beers with different foods to see how they get along: even if every pairing isn't perfect, you get to drink a beer with all of them!