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Selecting the right type of beer to pair with food is often a matter of personal preference and oftentimes it's not given a lot of thought. Though, what if one were to create a very intentional beer and food pairing? How would the matches be made? It might seem obvious to pair light beers like lagers, pilsners and blonde ales with light fare such as seafood, chicken and salads. And it probably goes without saying that darker beers like porters and stouts pair well with hearty meals like steak and potatoes. However, did you know that the The American Craft Brewers Association lists over 150 styles of beer?
With so many beer options to choose from, it'd be a lot of work to describe every possible beer and food pairing. So instead of doing that we're going to describe some basic guidelines that can be used to match any style of beer with a dish. But don't worry, we're also going to make a few pairing suggestions for the more popular styles of beer.
Keep reading if you want to follow our step by step guide. However, feel free to skip ahead if you're looking for something particular.
- Beer Flavor Guide
- Food Flavor Elements
- Contrasting Beer and Food Pairing
- Complementary Food and Beer Pairing
Beer Flavor Guide
First and foremost, one must be familiar with the flavor profiles of the food and the beer being matched together. Since most people reading this are probably much more familiar with the food they're serving than the beer they're pairing, we've prepared a beer flavor guide.
The visuals of beer can be important when deciding upon pairings because the clarity and color of a beer are going to either match or provide a contrast to the visuals of the food selection. If presentation is meticulously planned for the food, it should be taken into consideration for the beer as well.
Beer can be clear, cloudy, hazy, or opaque. Most light lagers and west coast IPAs are clear. Wheat beers are often cloudy. And New England IPAs, which continue to be very popular, are hazy.
Carbonation / Nitrogenation
Appearance is also affected by carbonation. Highly carbonated beers will have a lot of bubbles welling up from the bottom that may also form a large head (the collection of bubbles on top of the liquid). Low carbonation beers won't have as many bubbles and may also not have as much head. Another possibility is that the beer may not be carbonated at all and instead may be nitrogenated. "Nitro" beers feature tiny bubbles that actually cascade downward upon the initial pour and then form a very creamy uniform head on top of the glass that often lasts until the last drop has been drunk.
Beer color ranges from light straw to dark black. Within this range are beers that appear to be almost blood red, some that are copper, and others that are brown. When haze is added to the equation, the color becomes very interesting, as some pints of beer could almost certainly pass as glasses of orange juice.
If color is important to pairing, a great tool for narrowing down options would be the beer color Standard Reference Method SRM. SRM is a number that corresponds to a particular color and every beer style has an SRM range. For example, all "American Pales" should have an SRM of somewhere between 6-12 which corresponds to a "deep gold" color. Though, keep in mind that this is just an approximation. SRM color categories sometimes overlap. Also, it's possible for a brewer to claim a certain style that doesn't actually match the SRM for that style. However, this is a good place to start for an approximation.
Some sources say smell is responsible for about 80% of what humans taste and it plays a very important part of the beer drinking experience. Although the most prominent aromatic characteristic of many beers is often thought to be the hop aroma, the other ingredients such as grains, yeast, and adjuncts contribute significantly to the smell as well.
Because there are literally tens of thousands of possible combinations of ingredients, each producing a unique aroma profile, we aren't able to describe every possible beer recipe. Instead, we're going to use this section to tie a few of the most common aromas to the particular ingredients responsible for producing them. Because, after all, to be able to evaluate and recommend beer, one must be able to identify and name what they taste and smell, and it's helpful to have a general sense of the aromas that will be generated by the different ingredient types.
We'll start with grain. The lighter grains used to make beer can impart notes of honey, biscuit, crackers, and bread. Crystal or caramel malts are made by processing the grain in a way that creates sugar, which is then roasted. This creates a malt that contains both fermentable and unfermentable sugars which caramelize during the roasting process. The result is a beer that has notes of caramel, toffee and burn sugar. Medium roast malts often impart a nutty, or a more rich bread-like aroma. Darker malt can make a beer smell like toasted nuts, coffee, chocolate, raisins and can generally be described as "roasty."
The takeaway is that lighter beers often exhibit the aromas associated with lighter malt and darker beers with darker malt. This doesn't always hold true, but there is often an underlying aroma malt aroma, even in more hoppy, less malty beers. Use the information above to help determine the malt aroma in the beer you are pairing.
There is a lot of variety in the aroma of beer, but for most, the defining characteristic is hop aroma. And an entire range of floral, fruity, piney, earthy notes can come through in hop aroma. In fact, hops are split into three categories; aroma hops, bittering hops, and dual use hops. Aroma hops are specifically added just to create aroma.
Because there are literally hundreds of varieties of hops, we won't be able to describe them all individually, However, the (incomplete) list of possible hop aromas is as follows: candy, cotton candy, citrus, earthy, floral, flowery, fruity, grapefruit, herbs, lemon, lime lychee, mango, melon, pear, peppery, pine needles, pineapple, spicy, stone fruit, strawberry, tangerine, tropical, and watermelon.
These days it's more common for brewers to display a list of the hops used to brew the beer on the can label. That's always a good place to start when trying to dissect hop aroma. To match a particular hop with its "official" aroma profile, use this handy hop list. Though if none are listed, just follow your nose.
Yeast isn't something that many would think contributes a lot of aroma to a beer but it actually does. In fact, the defining characteristic of some beers is produced not by the hops or grain, but by the yeast. For example, many Belgian beers have a "bubble gum" quality that is a direct result of the Tappist yeast used for fermentation. German Hefeweizen beers often have a strong banana or cove vibe, which is, again, produced by the yeast used to ferment these beers. Believe it or not, beer made with the wild yeast brettanomyces is often described as smelling like a "wet horse blanket." We demonstrated just how powerful the impact that yeast has on the aroma of beer in our four yeast split batch, conducted with the help of the world class White Labs Yeast Company.
Flavors often match the aroma of a beer, as one's sense of smell plays a large roll in how they perceive taste. However, the flavor of beer can be crisp, clean, and light, malty sweet, bitter and hoppy, and even acidic. We'll break down various flavor differences below, focusing on exactly where the flavors come from. Though, the best guide for beer flavor will be a style index, such as the BJCP style guidelines, which list every beer style as well as the flavors that one should anticipate.
In almost all cases, the sweet taste of beer comes from malted barley. Barley is the primary ingredient in most beers. It is also mostly starch, but during the brewing process enzymes are used to convert these starches into sugar. Yeast eat the sugar during fermentation and turn it into alcohol. However, they aren't able to eat all of the sugar and some residual sweetness always remains.
Most beer will always have some level of malty sweetness. Descriptions of the nuances of this flavor often veer into various baked goods categories including biscuits, crackers, and baked breads. Though, because the grains used to make beer are also roasted, additional roasty, toasty, nutty flavors often abound.
Hop flavor often matches hop aroma, with one notable exception: hop bitterness. However, hop bitterness plays a much larger role in flavor (vs. aroma) and must be accounted for when pairing food and beer.
Bitterness in beer is actually calculated using international bitterness units, or IBUs. It's an estimate of how bitter a beer will be based on the amount and type of hops added, as well as how long they were boiled. Loner boils make for more bitter beer. The IBU scale ranges from 0 - 120 with zero being not bitter at all and 120 being roughly the maximum amount of bitterness that the average human pallet is able to detect and differentiate. Following is a sample of the bitterness range for a variety of beers.
As you can see, bitterness varies widely among styles. There is even some variation within the different styles. For a complete visual representation, head on over to Brewer's Friend and check out their Beer Style IBU Chart.
Yeast is added to beer to ferment sugar, thus turning it into alcohol. Yeast also has an often underestimated (but significant) impact on flavor. Some of the most notable yeast strains, in terms of unique flavor include German Hefeweizen yeasts, which taste like banana and clove, Belgian yeasts, which sometimes have a fruity, bubblegum taste, and Saison yeasts, which, have a hard to describe, but very unique "yeasty" flavor.
If the strain of yeast is known, it can often be looked up on the yeast manufacturers website, which typically includes the expected flavor profile. If it isn't, one of the best resources when it comes to nailing down the particular flavor that yeast will bring to a style is the White Labs yeast bank. They have one of the most robust collections in the world, with literally more than 1000 strains of yeast in their lineup. Go to the site and find the particular yeast or yeasts recommended for the style. That will give you a pretty good idea of what the yeast profile will be like for a particular beer.
And mouthfeel ranges from light and crisp to syrupy. Whether carbon dioxide or nitrogen is used to provide the fizz also makes a big difference. Carbonated beer has a bite and nitro beer is silky smooth. West coast IPAs tend to have a dry, sharp, and clean mouthfeel while New England IPAs have a much softer, more "juicy" mouthfeel.
Alcohol by Volume (ABV)
The alcohol by volume (ABV) is a measure of the alcohol content found within beer. It isn't consistent across beer styles and can actually vary as much as 4x when comparing a session IPA or light lager to an imperial stout, Belgian Tripel or barley wine, for example.
ABV is important to think about when pairing beer with food for a number of reasons. First, ABV and the "body" of beer often tend to correlate. Higher ABV beers often have more body. Second, alcohol has a physiological effect on the person drinking it and the higher the ABV and / or the more that is drunk, the more intense the effect will be. Is this a lunch pairing? Perhaps a lower ABV beer will be more appropriate. Will multiple beers be paired? To keep the senses intact, it may be wise to start with lower ABV offerings and end with the highest.
Food Flavor Elements
According to Cordon Bleu, a little culinary arts outfit you may have heard of, there are five food flavor elements:
- Sweetness - The resulting taste of sugars like glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, lactose, etc.
- Saltiness - The taste that results when salt is added to food.
- Bitterness - Bitter foods do not share a similar chemical structure, but examples would be coffee, unsweetened chocolate, arugula, and grapefruit.
- Sourness - This taste that results partially due to low pH as well as the specific types of acid responsible for reducing the pH.
- Umami - This taste is described as "savory" and is most commonly associated with soy sauce, mushrooms, and cheese.
Once basic beer flavors are understood, a plan for accentuating flavors should be decided upon. The two most popular food and beer pairing options are contrasting and complementary.
Contrasting Beer and Food Pairing
The first potential option for matching food and beer is focusing on contrasting flavors. For example, sweet and sour is perhaps the most notable contrasting flavor pairing of all time - and it's so good! But why? Some say that humans developed a taste for the sweet and sour flavor combination through evolution by eating rotten fruit, which contained lactic bacteria, a probiotic that is beneficial to gut health.
Another reason that contrasting food pairings may be preferred by the human pallet is that certain contrasting flavors actually complement in a way that creates balance. For example, the sharp, acidic taste of a very sour dish can be too intense for some individuals. Other individuals, myself included, are turned off by overly sweet foods. Scientific research actually suggests that genetics are responsible for the perception of sweet substances and whether or not something tastes too sweet or just right is baked into our genes! However, both of these flavors, sweet and sour, tend to reduce the perception of the other. In other words, adding sour to a dish will actually reduce the perception of sweetness and vice versa.
Sweet and bitter is another contrasting food pairing that not only works well, but may even be necessary for some foods to be palatable. Cinnamon, for example, is incredibly bitter and it isn't something that anyone eats as a stand-alone food. In fact, a dangerous food challenge gained popularity that highlighted the fact that it's almost impossible to eat a spoonful of cinnamon by itself. However, the addition of sugar to cinnamon makes for one of the most heavenly delicious, and popular, contrasting flavor combinations of all time.
Considering flavor alone, the same strategy used to pair contrasting foods can be used to pair food and beer. For example, a sour or salty dish could be contrasted with a sweet, malty beer. A salty, briny oyster pairs well with milk stouts, for example. And the opposite may work as well. The sharp, crisp, salty, and sour taste a gose (pronounced “go-sah”) may contrast well with a sweet and rich dish like sweet pulled pork tacos.
Complementary Beer and Food Pairing
Choosing flavor compounds that complement one another is another great way to pair food and beer. There is a lot of debate regarding how and why certain foods are matched together. One theory is that foods that pair well together actually share aroma compounds. Another theory is that humans evolved to prefer what was available to them, which tended to be foods that were native to the region of the planet where they were located, grew well on the land they lived on, and were easy to preserve. For example, the aroma compound food pairing theory holds up in North America and Western Europe but East Asian cuisine tends to be organized differently.
The easiest way to approach complementary beer and food pairing is by matching general similarities. In general, savory foods pair well with one another, as do sweet foods, and so on. To this end, we can make some assumptions about food pairing that will probably hold up pretty well. A robust porter would probably pair pretty well with hearty a meal like steak frites. Likewise, a light Mexican lager obviously pairs very well with lighter fare such as fish tacos.
To get more into the weeds we can use Foodpairing theory to generate some matches.
Here's an odd complementary pairing suggestion: a Belgian-style white or wit beer, which contains coriander, and this coriander carrot dessert. Both the beer and the dessert contains coriander. Coriander also contians ionone, a flavor compound that is shared by carrot as well. Belgian wit beer is brewed with wheat and is fermented with Belgian yeast. The wheat will create a softer less malty nose with more body than a beer brewed with all barley. The yeast will produce a full, round taste as well. This should pair well with a rich and hearty carrot coriander dessert.
Feel free to take your own approach. Take the easy road and make complementary pairing suggestions based on general similarities or, dive into the weeds and create some weird complementary pairings of your own.
Ready to start home brewing? Learn how to make beer at home from Clawhammer. We've been at this for decades.