At times of jubilation and stress, celebration and depression, we often turn to comfort foods to make us feel just a little bit better. We all know what comfort food is, at least to some extent, even if it’s a little bit tricky to pin down exactly. Most people know it when they see it—or in this case taste it—even if definitions are often personal, and occasionally even cultural or national. There are many different comfort foods, but is it possible that beer is actually one of them?
What Is Comfort Food?
To decide whether or not beer is comfort food, we should at least be able to say with some confidence what comfort food is. It’s one of those phrases that most people have an opinion about what it means, but those tend to vary a great deal from person to person. It’s a surprisingly modern term and wasn’t added to the dictionary until 1977, making it around the same age as craft beer. Merriam-Webster defines comfort food as “food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal.” The Oxford English Dictionary isn’t too different and describes it as “food that provides consolation or a feeling of well-being, typically any with a high sugar or other carbohydrate content and associated with childhood or home cooking.”
The Key Elements of Comfort Food
- High in carbohydrates (both sugar and starch) and fat (including tryptophan)
- Foods tend to be simple, with few ingredients, and are very filling
- Associated with a specific memory, childhood or home cooking
- Satisfies an emotional, sentimental or nostalgic need and provides a sense of physical as well as emotional comfort
Popular American Comfort Foods
|Apple pie ala mode||Barbecue|
|Beer stew||Burger & fries|
|Chicken pot pie||Chicken soup|
|Chili||Chocolate cake & other desserts|
|Cookies & milk||Fried chicken|
|Grilled cheese & tomato soup||Hot dogs & baked beans|
|Macaroni & cheese||Meatloaf|
|Peanut butter & jelly||Pizza|
|Pot roast||Shepherd’s pie|
|Spaghetti & meatballs||Thanksgiving turkey|
The Science of Comfort Food
According to a 2000 study done by the Food & Brand Lab at the University of Illinois, the most popular comfort foods are the following:
- Potato Chips (24%)
- Ice Cream (14%)
- Cookies (12%)
- Candy (11%)
- Pizza/Pasta (11%)
In part, those results are because the study surveyed college students. Other studies have found that the younger you are, the more likely it is you’ll prefer sweets and snacks, while as we age, our preferences begin to change to preferring hot foods like soup and mashed potatoes.
Also, men would rather have an entire meal, whereas most women gravitate toward snacking, usually on sweet desserts like chocolate or snack foods. While overall, some research suggests that the decision to eat comfort foods is for men associated with positive emotions while for women it’s more often due to negative ones, not all studies agree.
A University of Illinois study found just the opposite.
“While many people assume comfort foods are generally eaten when a person is in need of comfort, such as when they are depressed, bored, or lonely, the opposite is true. People were more likely to seek out comfort foods when they were happy (86%) or when they wanted to celebrate or reward themselves (74%) then when they were depressed (39%), bored (52%), or lonely (39%).”
“Even more interesting is that the types of comfort foods a person is drawn toward varies depending on their mood. People in happy moods tended to prefer healthier foods such as pizza or steak (32%). Sad people reached for ice cream and cookies 39% of the time, and 36% of bored people opened up a bag of potato chips.”
Is Beer Comfort Food?
Having a better understanding of what is comfort food—and now being very, very hungry—we can tackle the question of whether or not beer is a comfort food in its own right. This idea initially came from Brian Hunt, the founder and brewmaster at Moonlight Brewing in Sonoma County, California. Hunt knew I shared his love of philosophical discussion, especially over a pint or two, and thought I too would enjoy the debate. So we met at a local watering hole, ordered a couple of comfort beers and sat down to discuss his idea.
For Brian Hunt, the notion seems obvious. “Beer is largely unpretentious. It’s like meatloaf. How pretentious can you make a meatloaf?” And beer is just there, waiting in the refrigerator. You don’t need a reason; “you just reach for it and drink it, unlike a $50 bottle of wine.” While you can think very hard about the beer in your glass, “you don’t really have to think about. You can just relax and enjoy it. You smack your lips and an audible ‘ah’ escapes from your mouth. Now that’s satisfaction without pretense. That’s comfort.”
Beer certainly shares many of the key elements of comfort food. Like many of them, it’s also high in carbohydrates. Remember all the low-carb beers that tried to counter those health concerns a few years ago? And beer has only a few ingredients and only low-calorie light beers are less filling. Check.
Are beers associated with specific memories? Absolutely. While childhood and home cooking may have had to wait until most of us were a little older, nostalgia can often still be a strong factor in brand loyalty. In part, that explains why so many old retro brands have been making a comeback in recent years.
Having a few pints with your friends or relatives has always been an integral part of people getting together to share one another’s company. In a sense, beer is the glue that cements those memories and is what makes them comforting, both physically and emotionally. It’s really no different than sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner. The shared experience is ultimately the same with craft beer.
There’s no doubt in our minds: craft beer is most definitely comfort food.
Craft Brewers Talk Comfort Food and Beer
To get a wider perspective, I also spoke to several craft brewers from around the country to get their take on the idea of craft beer as comfort food.
Brian O’Reilly, head brewer at Sly Fox Brewhouse agreed wholeheartedly, offering the age-old saying that “beer is food” as obvious proof. He recalled when the well-known Philadelphia bar, Standard Tap, opened the owners’ philosophy was that they “liked eating at a bar much better than drinking at a restaurant.” To O’Reilly, that meant that beer in its natural state is not pretentious. It may challenge your palette, but it’s not pretentious.” Toward that end, at times he prefers a beer that doesn’t have to be the focus. It’s a different way to enjoy a beer, one that you can have three of the same of in a row.”
Terrapin Beer’s Spike Buckowski echoed that sentiment, noting that “beer is liquid bread. It’s what the monks had when they fasted.” It’s for that reason he even thinks that big beer styles, like old ale, strong ale or imperial stout could be considered comfort food. He also suggested an interesting experiment would be to have a beer dinner with no food, just different beers for each course, a salad beer, a beer for the main course followed by a dessert beer, for example.
Dan Kopman, co-founder of the Saint Louis Brewery, said “I completely agree,’ adding. “For most of my adult life, after age 19, I was in Great Britain and in my comfort environment — the pub — beer was my dinner and my comfort food. If I wanted a something different, I went to a different kind of restaurant.”
Sean Lilly Wilson, founder of Fullstream Brewing, consciously makes two different types of beer: beer for conversation and beer for introspection. The latter type is where the beer is the focus, the former is for comfort, which he also refers to as “beer beers. They’re the kinds of beer you want after a long shift, a beer to slow down with, to relax and enjoy yourself after the hard part of the day is over.”
For Jeff O’Neil, head brewer at Ithaca Beer Co., it’s all about the memories that beer has created throughout his life. “A really good pale ale can take me back to the first time I had Sierra Nevada.” In the same way mac and cheese reminds him of his childhood, certain beers bring vivid memories, too. But most importantly, he sees that happening to visitors at his own brewery, where he sees firsthand those memories being forged. “There’s an aspect I see here where people have come around to regard the beer that’s local as a very positive thing. They tell me drinking my beer makes them feel like they’re home, that it seems familiar to them.” In other words, it’s comforting.
In the end, the idea of beer as comfort food is the beginning of a discussion. Like comfort food itself, everyone agrees that beer is comfort food, but the whys and wherefores are more personal, which in a sense is how it ought to be. But comfort food as a concept has created a class of foods that are the favorites of an entire nation, even if the details vary. If beer can tap into that same idea and bring people along to see their local or regional craft beer as uniquely comforting to them, then craft beer is here to stay. What do you think? Let’s start the discussion now, right after I order another beer.
Jay R. Brooks has been writing about beer for almost twenty years, and drinking it far longer. The former GM of the Celebrator Beer News, these days he writes a syndicated newspaper column, “Brooks On Beer,” and for most of the beer publications who’ll have him. He also rants online at his idiosyncratic Brookston Beer Bulletin and contributes to several other beer blogs. This article was created with the help of many flavorful craft beers.