With the rise of interest in craft beers, it was only a matter of time until people began to search new ways to improve their overall experience, as they have always done with Wine. Although Wine is a fine drink, it cannot provide as much different flavors and aromas as beer can, since all wines are made of the same ingredient: Grapes. Whereas beer can be made using different malts that can also be roasted to different intensities, drastically altering its characteristics.
But the pairing of both beverages with food follows the same guidelines. The objective is to have an overall experience that is better than if they were to be consumed individually. The pairing with food is a search for sensory pleasure, where the characteristics of both can be increased and complement each other.
It is important to consider that different people will have different opinions on how the beer and food pair with each other and you will not be able to satisfy every single person with the same combination, because personal taste has a great influence. But even so, there are some basic guidelines that work well for most people and that is what you should aim for.
The first thing you must consider is the intensity of the beer and the food. Generally, it is best to use similar intensities: Light beers with light food and dark/bitter beers with strong and spicy foods. Observe the aspects of the beer: alcohol, bitterness, sweetness, color and body. Then observe the aspects of the food: how much fat, spices, complements, method of cooking (grilled, boiled, fried, roasted, and raw).
Next, we must decide how we want the beer to affect the food. There are three parameters: pairing by similarity, by contrast and by “cut”.
The pairing by similarity uses both parts with similar characteristics, like aroma, flavor, body, strength, bitterness or sweetness. The objective is to make each one complement each other with similar sensations. For example, a Russian Imperial Stout with a petit gateau, a Belgian Dark Strong Ale with a chocolate with high concentration of cocoa and a German Märzen with roasted chicken, where both have caramel-like notes that look alike.
When we do a pairing by contrast, we look for combinations that don´t have similar characteristics but that when combined, can balance each other and can even form a new flavor on the mouth. A classic example is the acidity of a Belgian fruit Lambic with the sweetness of a white chocolate.
The third parameter is the pairing by “cut”, where the objective is to make the beer neutralize certain aspects of the food, like fat. And this one of the advantages of beer over wine. Most beers have good carbonation and bitterness (provided by the hops). This allows the beer to clean the taste buds of the excessive fat, cleaning the mouth and preparing it for the next sip, making it look like the first one. Hops also help to balance excessive spicy tastes in strong dishes. A good example of this type of pairing is Barbecue meat with a very hoppy American style India Pale Ale (IPA), or the same IPA with Gorgonzola cheese. In both cases, the hops of the IPA help to clean the taste buds of the excessive fat.
There is yet another type of pairing, which we call “cultural”. These are pairings that don´t necessarily follow those three guidelines, but have been used for centuries, becoming cultural pairings, like a German Weisswurst with a Weissbier and Oysters with English Stouts.
But the possibilities don´t end there, did you know you can also cook with beer? Like wine, beer can also be used to cook some spectacular meals, and you can even serve it to children, as the alcohol evaporates during the cook. And to do so, you just have to follow the parameter of similarity, dark beers with strong meats and so on. Good examples are: Fish with a French/Belgian Saison, roasted Chicken with a German Märzen and Lamb with a German Dunkel or a Brown Ale.
Going back to the topic of cultural pairings, in some places you should also consider the occasion in which you will be. If you are going to stay someplace for a long time, like a barbecue with friends, you should consider lighter beers with less alcohol. So instead of drinking a strong and very hoppy American IPA or a German Rauchbier (with smoked taste), you could instead choose a German Dunkel or a Vienna Lager, that don´t have so much alcohol and strong flavors.
One last thing to consider is the seasonality. When doing these pairings, you should also consider the time of the year. Choose lighter beers in the summer and darker and stronger beers in the winter. Pilsners, Saisons and Weissbeers are great during hot days and a Russian Imperial Stout or a Belgian Quadruppel can help you feel warmer in cold nights.
Finally, as we said before, the objective of beer and food pairing is to achieve sensory pleasure and there is no need to follow these guidelines to the letter, so if you enjoy a combination that may seem odd, there´s no problem in going for it. As long as you enjoy it. A good part of the fun is to experience new combinations and see what works best for you!