Why Do Craft Beer and Food Work So Well Together?
By Julia Herz, Certified Cicerone®
In general, there are four main ingredients in craft beer: malted barley (or malted wheat or other cereal grains), hops, yeast and water. Malt and hop flavors tend to be the most prominent and can easily be paired with foods. Additionally, beer’s carbonation plays a role in food pairing. Let’s take a closer look.
- The sweetness of malt reduces the heat of spicy food.* Try it out—sip a malty brown ale with a spicy Thai dish or try a Scotch Ale with some spicy Mexican food. Intensely spiced foods, which have become a popular component of today’s American diet, are complemented by craft beer’s ability to diminish heat. In comparison, wine’s higher alcohol actually accentuates the warmth from many spices which can be undesirable.
- Matly beer styles to pair with fired-up foods: brown ale, bock, porter, red ale, Scotch and Scottish ale, stout, Vienna lager
- Malt bonus: The flavors of malt, which can range from caramel, chocolate, graham cracker, roast, toasted, toffee, harmonize with grilled, roasted and smoked foods because share many of the same flavors.
Many of the dishes we eat today have rich sauces with added fat and butter. Hop bitterness can counteract rich sauces resulting in desirable results.
- Hop bitterness cuts through the fat in food thus lessening the dense heavy feeing in your mouth. This is pleasurable as it allows you to more fully taste the ingredients of your dish and enjoy the true flavors of both your craft beer and the food.
- Hop bitterness balances both malt and food’s sweetness.
- Be careful, hops may intensify spices and heat. A good rule of thumb is to pair malt forward beers with spicy foods and hop forward beers with rich or fatty foods.
- Don’t be shy! Experiment and try more highly-hopped beers with spicy foods, such as curry, and taste what happens.
Hops are a very talented flower in that they lend bitterness, flavor and aromatics. These can come across as everything from pine and earthy to tropical fruits like orange, grapefruit, mango and pineapple.
- What hops bring to the tasting party depends on when they were added to the batch of beer and the type of hop used.
- When it comes to the full range of flavors that hops deliver there are many simpatico flavors with food when paired.
- Often when there are similarities in flavors you are on your way to complementary pairings that sing success and resonance and the whole becomes better than the parts.
Beer’s carbonation (bubbles) scrubs the tongue of fat and prepares it for the next bite. This is a good thing!
How To Pair
When you pair food and craft beer, remember to pair to the preparation of the dish instead of just pairing to the original protein.
It makes sense to say that all the flavors in any dish are determined by its ingredients, but also the preparation of those ingredients. Before trying to create a pairing, ask yourself how the dish was cooked. Was it caramelized from grilling, steamed on a stove top, or just tossed with olive oil? Is the sauce tomato-based, andacidic or a rich, cheesy Alfredo? What kind of seasoning, herbs or spices were added? All of these elements add to the overall flavor impact of the dish.
Also remember, matching like with like in both strength and ingredients, will help you find harmonies and flavor hooks that make the food and beer shine. What this means is you might not want a light American lager paired against a rich, dense chocolate cheesecake—that poor lager is going to get knocked down and won’t shine like it should.
At the other end of the taste spectrum, a plain side salad with a light olive oil dressing paired against a Belgian tripel is not likely to harmonize, the salad’s flavors are too light to stand up against the sweeter, 9% ABV tripel.
Print out our craft beer and food pairing chart for a great set of examples on what types of beer styles work with different types of foods.
Interaction of Beer and Food Elements
Salt flavors in food counters acidic flavors in beer—sour or wild ales become less acidic with salty foods. A few examples of sour beers include, berliner weiss, gueze, lambic, flanders red & browns, and many “wild” or funkified beers.
Acidity exists to a certain extent in all food dishes, especially tomato dishes and many salad dressings. When you match acidic food with acidic beer, they nullify each other and only mute the overall acidity. This is desirable and helps enhance the enjoyment of both the dish and the beer.
Sweetness in either food or beer paired with an acidic counterpart increases the acidity. So avoid pairing sweet and acidic flavors together—imagine toothpaste and orange juice. This is why so many more beers with natural sweetness work so well with dessert compared to so few wines.
The same effect of acidic food with acidic beverage happens when you pair sweet with sweet. Try pairing a Belgian quadruple (often over 10% ABV) with a dense sweet dessert. You’ll see how the sweetness of the beer lessens the sweetness of the dessert and vice versa. This helps marry the two—so pairing sweet and sweet is a good thing!
Acidic beverages do cut fat, and that helps the palate sense more of the flavors from a fatty, rich or dense dish. See the above section on hops to learn why craft beers, which tend to be more bitter than mass produced lagers, work so well with dishes on the richer side.
*Spice, Herbs and Heat
There are fundamental differences between spice, herbs and heat. For our discussion, we want to talk about heat—those additions to food that make your eyes water and your nose run—think capsaicin from chili peppers or pepper flakes.
Here’s a fun rhyme: sweet calms heat!
Heat intensifies alcohol, and as the alcohol penetrates your tongue and lips it acts like a solvent, which opens up your senses even more to the heat! The higher the ABV the more you’ll notice this effect. Go ahead, try a 12% ABV red wine with spicy salsa compared to a 5% ABV brown ale.
So be careful when pairing spicy hot food with higher alcohol beverages as the pairing leaves you more vulnerable to the heat used to flavor your dish. Restrained heat and alcohol is nice and creates a warming sensation in the mouth, but too much heat and alcohol is like throwing oil on fire, so be careful.
Moral of this two paragraph story…craft beer can go where wine cannot, because wine does not often pair well with spicy food due to its higher ABV (usually around 12%). Remember, don’t pair higher alcohol craft beers with highly spiced foods. Instead try your malt-forward styles against hot/spicy food and you’ll be amazed at how well they soothe the flavors.
Cheers and happy pairing!
Photos © 2010 Shutterstock, LLC.
Julia Herz, Craft Beer Program Director for the Brewers Association, is a homebrewer, BJCP beer judge and Certified Cicerone™. Despite her extensive experience, she will always consider herself a beer beginner on an unending journey to learn more about craft beer. Additionally, for interesting articles on small and independent craft brewers check out Delicious and follow Craft Beer Muses on Twitter.