Beer pairing is not unlike wine pairing; the texture, acid, weight—with the addition of caramelization and carbonation—all come into play. Some beer pairing experts compare lagers to white wine and ales to red wine as a good rule of thumb. And, while of course not an across-the-board truism, in many ways it’s a good generality. Ales tend to be fruity and robust like red wines, while many lagers are crisp and comparatively delicate, like white wines. And hops in beer function like wine acids in food pairings … think of, say, a bitter IPA and a Chianti: both cut through fattiness and oiliness, and even saltiness.
While it’s more complicated than that, we know, we think our 3 Rules for Food and Wine Pairing work well for beer as well…
1. Start with what you like.
Don’t drink a beer you don’t enjoy just because it’s “supposed” to be good with a certain dish. Instead, start with what you enjoy.
Comparison: Have you ever grudgingly invited people over that you don’t care for because everyone else says they’re fun? Sometimes it’s best just to stick with the friends you know will make you smile and laugh all night.
2. Consider the weight and preparation of the food.
Heavy foods pair with full-bodied, bolder beers while light foods pair with light-bodied beers; a poached chicken salad, for example, doesn’t carry the same weight as a jerk chicken. Consider the beer as a condiment of sorts for the dish, thinking about the sauce or seasoning.
Comparison: Sumo wrestler in a tutu? A flute and tuba duet? Yeah, it doesn’t work for us either…
3. Aim for balance.
Beer shouldn’t overpower food, nor should food overpower beer. Balance can be achieved by matching flavors (a sweet “dopplebock with crème brulee, A tart witbier with a lemon vinaigrette salad) or by pairing opposites (spicy foods often pair wonderfully with lightly hopped, citric wheat ales, and a dry, bitter stout classically pairs with oysters, perhaps “cutting through” the sweetness of the shellfish).
Comparison: Dan and Leslie are very similar. They love each other. Paul and Trina are very different. They love each other, too. Love is good … and so is beer.
Some additional notes to help you pair your beer with food:
1. Bubbles cuts through fried and fatty foods, so opt for more carbonation when eating richer, fattier fare.
2. Serving temperature is important, as beer can taste syrupy if too warm. While some beer is meant to be enjoyed at room temperature, most lagers and ales are best served between 40°F and 50°F.
3. If you’re planning a meal or beer dinner with a different beer for each course, consider not only the individual pairings, but also the order of the beer you’ll be serving. Richer, heavier beers will overpower the palate early on, making it difficult to notice the nuances of lighter beers later. Try starting with lighter, lower-alcohol beers and ending with heavier more complex beers. And remember that beer was originally designed as food, not a beverage, so it can be filling. Stick to small portions—many chefs suggest about four ounces per course.