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The Basics of Beer and Food Pairing

Today’s Beer Week post comes from Jim Wagner, business owner and designer by day; devoted husband, father, and beer nerd all the time. He’s been brewing his own beer since receiving an equipment kit as a college graduation gift a long, long time ago. What little free time he has is spent writing about craft beer and beer culture at kcbeerscouts.com.
beer and food
Beer is food. Let’s start there.
The process of making beer is much more akin to cooking than, say wine making. Brewers choose ingredients, decide when and how much should be added, and apply heat to produce a finished product that meets their expectations. The process itself and wide array of potential ingredients really lends beer to be combined with food in amazing ways. Flavors as diverse as pine, toffee, chocolate, cloves, espresso, dill, grapefruit, banana, black pepper and plums can all be achieved using the most basic ingredients of beer making. Throw in (traditional and non-traditional) spices and additives, and the possibilities are truly endless.
However, it is hard to discuss pairing beer with food without some background on the styles of beer. If you don’t know what to expect from a style of beer, it’s difficult to match or contrast its flavors. The same is true from the other side. If I was asked what beer would pair well with carbonnade — and I didn’t know what carbonnade tasted like — it would very difficult to find a suitable beer pairing.
So here’s a very, very brief chart with some basic flavors found in beer styles I mention down below. This list is barely scratching the surface of the world of beer styles, but it’s a start … at least for now. For a more complete rundown of beer styles, check this out.

Pairing Beer and Food 101

There are a few strategies to use as guidance for pairings. Not rules, but strategies. You might find an amazing pairing that will contradict something written below. But this is a good way to get started in your journey to amazing synergy between beer and food.
Match Intensities
While not exactly a rule, this one is pretty important. For the best experience, you should strive to strike a balance between the strength of the flavors of the dish and the beer. The goal of any pairing is to enhance flavors of each component piece, one part can’t overpower the other and be a good pair. Poached white fish and rice would be destroyed by the intense hop flavors and sturdy bitterness in an American IPA much like a softer American wheat beer is no match for a spicy and fatty smothered burrito.
Pair Similar Flavors
Easy enough. Take your dish and find a flavor to highlight and select a beer with a similar aspect in its flavor profile. A salad with a citrus vinaigrette would do nicely with a Belgian or Belgian-style witbier, which is spiced with coriander and orange peel. It has a light body and gentle acidity that mimics the flavors in the dressing. If the main course is a hearty stew, a beer with some roasted characteristics, like a porter or stout, would play nicely.
If we look more broadly, flavors can be categorized as “bright” and “dark.” I first encountered this idea in The Brewmaster’s Table, a book by Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery in New York. Bright flavors include citrus, acidity, fresh apples and pears, white grapes, and anything brisk. Dark flavors encompass chocolate, dark fruit like plums and raisins, roasted meats, sweet spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, and earthy or umami flavors. When pairing your beer with food, bright flavors do well with other bright flavors; dark with dark. Remember though: we’re talking bright and dark flavors, not colors. There are lightly colored beers with earthy and herbal flavors that wouldn’t do when matched up with a brightly flavored course.
Find a Contrast
Finding a link between flavors in your beer and flavors in your dish will often yield good results. But sometimes going against the grain (or in Beer Scout terms, “zagging” when the world is “zigging”) produces amazing results.
For example, let’s say the dessert course of your fancy friend dinner is a dense, sweet chocolate brownie dusted with a faint flurry of powdered sugar. One beer with similar sweet, rich, chocolate flavors would be an imperial stout. It is rich, viscous, and sweet bursting, with coffee and chocolate flavors from roasted grains.
However, I would suggest zagging here: a sweet chocolatey dessert in both liquid and solid form may just be too much of the same thing. Perhaps something brighter and lighter in your glass would create extraordinary results. Something with a touch of acidity, bright fruity flavors that could turn that brownie into a parfait of chocolate and berries. There are such beers — they’re called lambics. Belgian lambics are tart, complex and very dry beers. Often brewers will cut into that tartness by adding fruit like cherries and raspberries. Either of which would create a mind-bogglingly awesome compliment to that dark chocolate brownie.
There are a few other contrasting flavors that often play well together.

  • Salty food and bitter beer. Salty food causes thirst. Bitterness in beer offsets the sweeter malty aspects making beer more refreshing. That’s a perfect combination.
  • Rich food and acidic or highly-carbonated beer. There’s a reason that champagne is the preferred wine of brunch. Those tiny bubbles lift the rich eggs right off your palate. Highly carbonated beers can do the same. Most beers are not very sour, but the sour ones can really do well cutting thru mouth-coating fatty foods, readying you for the next bite.
  • Spicy (heat) food and malty beer. Malty sweetness can make the spiciest foods a bit tamer. An Oktoberfest or American amber ale does well with a spicy curry or Thai dish. They can come close to matching intensity and provide some sweetness to balance out the heat. Be careful here though: high alcohol and high bitterness can make the chilies burn even more.

If All Else Fails: Go Belgian or Belgian-style
The most gastronomically interesting of the European countries with strong brewing traditions is no doubt Belgium. They are a crossroads of culinary influences and their beers offer much to food pairing when you’re not sure what to do. Belgian witbiers, saisons, dubbels and tripels do exceptionally well with most any food. Really, it’s hard to go wrong.
I hope this gives you some confidence to go out and try to pair some exciting beers with some amazing food. Be bold. If you are interested in more complete discussion of beer and food, I highly recommend The Brewmaster’s Table by Garrett Oliver and Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher. Cheers! And happy eating.
What’s your favorite brew to sip on with a meal? Does it change with the food or do you have one you always reach for? —Jim, KC Beer Scouts

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