The idea that certain wines go well with certain foods is an old one – even teetotalers know the “red with meat, white with fish” cliché. Beer’s place at the table is less codified, and beer drinkers can be reluctant to explore food pairing – why ruin beer by creating a lot of rules? After all, one of the most stifling things about enjoying wine is the old-fashioned, hoity-toity sense that some authority will come along, judge your wine choice, and find it lacking. Beer drinkers are wise to avoid that, and the wine world has had to work hard free itself from that snobbery (a work in progress, at least).
Until recently, talking about food with was limited to things like, “There’s nothing like beer and pizza!” The merits of “lite” versus “ice” beer with mozzarella, pepperoni, and anchovies weren’t really worth exploring. But the “craft beer revolution” has exploded our options: porters, stouts, wheaten ales, white ales, bocks, double bocks, trappist style ales…and the increase in domestic choices has spurred a wealth of new imports as well.
Lots of different food, and now, lots of different beer. But how to bring the two together? Pairing food and beer (or wine, for that matter) isn’t really about matching flavors—a chocolatey porter with chocolate, for example. Flavor relationships are just icing on the cake; the real priority is textural, or even chemical. Let’s look at beer and pizza. On the plate (or in the box) we’ve got cheese, tomato, and grease, for starters. The usual beer behind this clichéed combo is a dry, lighter-bodied lager or pilsner. The hoppiness and carbonation of a pilsner balance with the acidity of the tomatoes and cut the cheese—that is to say, they cleanse the oils and fat from the palate. A maltier beer—say, a darker, sweeter ale—wouldn’t have the same effect, so later bites of pizza or sips of beer will seem less flavorful. It’s not like there are cheese or tomato aromas in the beer (let’s hope); it’s the hops and carbonation that make it work.
Hops, in fact, take on much the same role filled by acidity in wine. A grouper or any other light fish that you’d normally squeeze a lemon over (there’s the acidity) will find a friend in, say, an IPA. Calamari fritto? Again, cut the grease of fried food with hops, perhaps a Belgian lager. Salads, with their acidic vinaigrette dressings, also do especially well with light-bodied, hoppy beers. Today’s craft brewers are keen on hops, so there are plenty of choices out there. For that matter, many microbrewers are trying out sour beers, so if you’d prefer to just let acidity work as acidity, so be it; however, more extreme examples, like Gueuze from Belgium, can be hard-sells for beer drinkers who aren’t accustomed to them.
What about sweetness? Although we don’t often think of our beers as sweet, there are actually a greater variety of mildly sweet beers then there are off-dry wines, which are generally confined to lighter-bodied whites like the Rieslings of Germany. And sweetness is one of the best things for cutting spicy heat. White ales and other wheat ales work well in this regard, especially for seafood or white meat, and aren’t so far removed from the mass-market lagers that are most commonly enjoyed with Asian or Mexican food. Malty brews like bocks, ambers and brown ales are great accompaniments to spicy meat dishes. Again, it’s not that those beers taste like cayenne pepper or curry; it’s about how they interact with the spicy ingredients in the dish.
Even sweeter beers make great dessert accompaniments, so lambics (excepting the sour types, of course) or other fruit-flavored beers go well with fruity desserts or milk chocolate, for example. There generally needs to be a balance of sweetness, though; a big imbalance between the two, and the less sweet partner could suffer. Sometimes more alcohol can help; dark chocolates often go well with high alcohol beers, like barley wines.
Sweetness and hops are probably the two most influential factors in a beer’s relationship with food, but there’s also mouthfeel; beers range from full-bodied and creamy to light and crisp, and too great a discrepancy between dish and beer will leave one them overshadowed. Mouthfeel lies behind a little-known but classic beer pairing: oysters and stout. Both have a creamy texture, even though the roasted flavors of the beer are a complete contrast to the briny mollusks—the texture balance facilitates the counterpoint of flavors.
Muscadet, which is searingly crisp and light, is the classic oyster wine, cutting through their creaminess with laserbeam acidity. It brings refreshment and lightness to the meal. Stouts are the complete opposite, since they double up on viscosity and lushness. The wine creates a light and refreshing match, while the beer goes for intensity and weight. Beer pairings are not just transliterations from the world of wine; they have their own life.
But there it is again, that comparison with wine. Can’t we just pop open our favorite brew without worrying about what’s on the table? Sure, and the same is true for wine, as well. There are many people who drink big reds no matter what the occasion, or creamy stouts wherever they can get them. Are they missing out? Perhaps; you see, pairing food—with wine, beer, or any beverage—is fun. Figuring out why a pairing worked, or didn’t, like a detective are part of the fun. As long as beer keeps to its down-to-earth roots, it should survive beer-food pairing unscathed. Pairing shouldn’t be about making rules; pairing is play.